CANDU-Climate communication disconnect continues in Canada

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Nuclear and climate change stories have featured large in Canadian news reports over the past couple of days. You’d never know that the first is an integral part of addressing the second, since there wasn’t a single news story that linked the two issues. This isn’t the government’s fault: in announcing the federal decision to privatize Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), the natural resources minister did point up the role nuclear must play in addressing climate change. But the only reason I know she said it is because I watched her press conference.

As the minister spoke, AECL CANDU nuclear reactors in Ontario were cranking out over 9,500 megawatts of carbon-free electricity. More power was coming from nuclear generators than from all the other types of generators—coal-fired, gas-fired, hydro, wind, and biomass—combined. Since mid-May, three of the Darlington CANDUs have come back online after maintenance outages. They represent over 2,600 MW of carbon-free power. Without them, gas- or coal-fired units would be standing in, giving us power with carbon emissions of between 1,400 tonnes to 2,600 tonnes each and every hour.

Meanwhile, the federal environment minister told reporters that Canada won’t cap carbon emissions until the U.S. does. The mainstream environmental lobby lambasted him for saying this, but gently—they know that he has rhetorically boxed them in by linking Canadian decisions with action (or, more likely, inaction) on the part of the still-popular U.S. president.

And Ontario? Feigning outrage with federal climate inaction, the Ontario government boldly reaffirmed its commitment to the Western Climate Initiative, a cap and trade scheme whose general features are years away from being even negotiated, let alone settled. Why doesn’t Ontario join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a northeastern U.S. scheme that covers only power plants, which are a big political issue in Ontario? RGGI after all is up and running—its third carbon permit auction was held two months ago—and Ontario trades electricity with RGGI member states.

Ontario isn’t in RGGI because RGGI would hurt the provincial gas strategy. Though the scheme was set up precisely to encourage a shift from emission-intensive coal to slightly less emission intensive gas in power generation, the stubborn spread between low coal prices and high gas prices means that carbon prices would have to attain politically incorrect levels before they could force the desired shift to gas. Until carbon costs eliminate the price spread between coal and gas, it will be more profitable to generate power with coal, regardless of its high emissions.

While the coal–gas price spread has disappeared during the current recession (see article), everyone—including provincial electricity planners—expects gas prices to shoot back up soon.

And why isn’t anybody in Ontario pointing up the happy effect the provincial nuclear generator fleet is having on Ontario carbon emissions? Good question. Nuclear provides cheap carbon-free power, without any of the torture that goes with estimating the carbon costs that everyone agrees must be introduced. But it’s part of the nuclear-climate disconnect.

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