Why isn’t the Ontario nuclear restart a bona fide green move?

In 1994, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Ontario’s electricity generating sector were nine million tonnes below Kyoto compliant. Of course Kyoto hadn’t been signed yet in 1994 but that’s not the point. The nine million tonnes is what’s important: it means Ontario’s GHGs from electricity generation were more than 26 million tonnes less in 1994 than they were in 2003.

And it’s also crucially important to remember how in the world Ontario ever found itself below the eventual Kyoto target in the first place.

Nuclear is sixty percent of the explanation, and hydro is twenty-five. Ontario generation was eighty-five percent emission free in 1994–1995; today it’s about seventy-five percent; see Environment Canada’s GHG inventory. In 1994, electricity-related emissions were 16.5 million tonnes (Kyoto would require the province to reduce annual emissions to roughly 25 million tonnes: six percent below the 1990 level of 26.4 million tonnes.)

Ontario’s CANDU fleet began encountering “maintenance issues.” So, in 1995, Ontario began laying up reactors: eight in all. Deprived of nearly half its nuclear power, the province was forced to rely on its coal-fired backup generators. Emissions skyrocketed.

Here we are today, twelve years and two governments later, and the current provincial government has decided to refurbish or replace the laid up reactors. We’re headed to Kyoto compliance once again. Given the sheer size of the reductions that will bring us to that point, this is a major positive development.

So where’s the applause? In light of the Environment Commissioner’s report last week, which slammed the federal Liberals for inaction in the nine years since they signed Kyoto, you might think McGuinty’s nuclear move would have been trumpeted by someone, not least McGuinty himself, as the biggest step—by far—that any government has taken toward Kyoto.

To be fair, McGuinty is beginning to talk about it… sort of. Keith Leslie of the Canadian Press quotes the premier as saying “we’re going to build new nukes in Ontario, not because it’s without controversy, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

This sounds a bit defensive. Is McGuinty afraid of the anti-nuke crowd’s political clout? Possibly: he worked hard to get Sylvia Watson elected in Parkdale–High Park two weeks ago, only to be defeated by an NDP candidate supported by the ant-nukes. Among others, these included the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club. These groups promised a repeat in next year’s provincial general election.

But 2006 isn’t 1812 and Toronto isn’t Detroit. McGuinty doesn’t have to repeat General Hull’s mistake. The anti-nuke crowd is noisy, dedicated, and full of threat and bluster. But it’s not an electoral threat. The NDP, alone among major Ontario political parties in opposing the nuclear renaissance, hasn’t budged from third place in spite of two Toronto-area by-election victories. The Liberals lost Parkdale–High Park for reasons other than their nuclear policy.

This means McGuinty still has time to get out in front of the nuclear issue. He came to power promising to give Ontario clean air by closing the coal plants. If he cuts their emissions by more than half, that’s almost as good.

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