Darlington nuclear as an election issue: to support, or not support, thousands of true clean energy jobs

On Wednesday evening I participated in an Ontario election debate on energy. During the 40-minute debate, Ontario nuclear plants were providing around 65 percent of the electricity that was powering not just the studio but the rest of the province as well.

In honour of our most important energy source, I felt it was important to urge our energy minister, Brad Duguid, to continue with his plans to build new reactors at the Darlington generating station. Darlington has four 860-megawatt CANDUs that have been delivering excellent performance for 15 to 20 years.

All four reactors will soon be in need of mid-life refurbishment, which means their pressure tubes will need to be replaced (due to diametral ageing creep). That makes the Bruce A Restart, a massive project to return 1500 MW of nuclear capacity to service at the Bruce station, all the more important.

However, the four units at the Pickering B station, units 5 through 8, will be decommissioned some time in the next ten years. That will leave a shortfall of 2,000 MW of nuclear capacity. How will we make up that shortfall? By adding new units at Darlington.

Duguid understands this, and, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, is one of the very rare politicians who stood up for nuclear in the early hysteria over the Fukushima nuclear emergency in Japan. While his German counterparts were buckling like wet cardboard in the face of a public that has been deliberately misinformed by groups professionally dedicated to shutting down the nuclear industry, Duguid saw through the hysteria, stood his ground, and stated flatly that Ontario would not be abandoning its nuclear fleet. He has consistently pushed for federal support for new nuclear units at Darlington.

In view of this, I took the opportunity, close to the end of the debate, to remind both the minister and Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski that action on Darlington is imperative. I did not bother saying this directly to the NDP or Green participants because they both oppose nuclear energy on doctrinal grounds.

The new Darlington project will be the biggest infrastructure project in the country, and the biggest clean energy project on the continent. And because it will create around 3,000 high-paid, high skilled jobs, it will also be the single biggest job creator in North America.

The provincial energy minister who starts this project will need nerves of steel and thick skin—he or she will be dealing incessantly with facile and vociferous complaints like this one, published today in the Toronto Star. The four authors of this piece would prefer that the 2,000 MW of capacity be provided by natural gas, a.k.a. methane, which is the same carbon-heavy fossil fuel that is responsible for skyrocketing pollution emissions from the Alberta oil sands. And, as you can see, one of the co-authors is managing director of a solar energy firm.

Solar power cannot of course survive in a normal electricity market. Its output is too small and unreliable to support an economic endeavor; that is why solar energy must receive outrageously high retail rates. In Ontario, those rates range from 44 to 80 cents per kilowatt-hour. No ratepayer in his right mind would voluntarily pay that kind of money for unreliable solar electricity when he could get reliable electricity for one-seventh the cheapest solar rate. But in Ontario, rate-payers do not have a choice. The FIT program forces us to pay solar producers 44 cents and up. If we paid solar producers at the rates that nuclear power sells at, solar farm operators would go bankrupt.

And even the outrageously high preferential rates for solar cannot protect the industry from financial peril. Solyndra, a big U.S. panel manufacturer and recipient of government support up the ying yang—including half a billion dollars in loan guarantees from the U.S. government—went bankrupt last week. The FBI raided the firm’s headquarters just yesterday (September the eighth), over improprieties involving the loan guarantee.

So the next Ontario energy minister, whether it’s Brad Duguid or John Yakabuski or someone else, will face daily barrages from self-interested and self-deluded advocates like the co-authors of the Toronto Star piece. He or she should ignore them.

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