Political will and leverage in Ontario: if not now, when?

Shortly after the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami wreaked horrific destruction on the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, Ontario energy minister Brad Duguid said he has no intention of changing the province’s plan to build new nuclear reactors at the Darlington station east of Oshawa on Lake Ontario.

This statement was remarkable. Duguid is an elected politician; his career fortunes depend on holding favour with those who elected him. In the face of unprecedented media-driven hysteria over the Fukushima emergency, Duguid might have chosen to do what his less disciplined counterparts in Germany did: i.e., buckle and give in to the loudest and shrillest voices and publicly abandon the plans for Darlington. Instead, he said this: “[t]he key there is Ontario families recognize that our [nuclear] units are safe… My entire family lives within close proximity to Pickering station,” he said, referring to the 8-unit nuclear station west of Oshawa.

It is always encouraging when a politician says the right thing. In the area of nuclear energy, it is a rare occurrence. So double congratulations to Duguid for stepping up and showing leadership. I said as much to Steve Paikin on the March 17 episode of The Agenda; to watch the video, click here.

You’ll get a chance to see minister Duguid in person; he will give the keynote address at the 2nd annual Canadian Institute Nuclear Symposium in Toronto on Thursday, April 28. Book now while there’s still space.

Dalton McGuinty, the premier of Ontario, also stepped up, on this past Monday, when, according to the Toronto Star, he told reporters “Ontarians should understand that 40 per cent of the federal government’s money comes directly from [Ontario]… [w]hen it comes to support from the federal government for energy projects Ontario is looking for equal treatment.”

McGuinty was referring to the federal announcement of loan guarantees for the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Newfoundland-Labrador, which I wrote about last week.

Negotiations between McGuinty and prime minister Harper over the terms of a sale of CANDU reactors (which are the flagship product of Atomic Energy Canada Limited, a federally owned crown corporation) to Ontario have been going on for nearly two years.

So McGuinty’s public nudge to Harper was Monday. The next day (April 5), the prime minister affirmed that Muskrat Falls-type projects would receive similar federal support in all provinces, telling the Star that “[i]t’s essential . . . to combat climate change to allow regions to access hydroelectricity, a source of clean energy.”

The Star didn’t mention that Harper gave himself a bit of wiggle room in his statement. He said “hydroelectricity.” McGuinty wants federal support for Darlington, which is a nuclear project.

So the dance continues.

But seeing as we are in a crucial federal election, and seeing as Harper will need more Ontario seats if he is going to get the majority that eluded him in 2006 and 2008, it looks like McGuinty has an opportunity to apply some good old fashioned pressure to get the prime minister to clarify that Muskrat Falls-type support will also be available for nuclear projects.

How could McGuinty apply this pressure? By telling every reporter who will listen that Darlington would be the biggest job-creation engine in the country. Imagine having your name attached to a major capital project that instantly creates thousands of high-paying jobs in the Golden Horseshoe, i.e., in the 905.

And by telling every reporter who will listen that putting extra nuclear capacity into Darlington will be by far the biggest step Harper could take toward a clean electricity grid. In one fell swoop he could clear away all those accusations that he is not doing anything about clean air and climate change.

In sealing a nuclear deal with Harper, McGuinty would help both Harper and himself. The next Ontario provincial election is this October.

It will be very interesting to see how Ontario energy minister Brad Duguid will play this at the Nuclear Symposium in Toronto on April 28.

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