The energy ground-game: coming soon to Courtice, Ontario

The Darlington Nuclear Generating Station on Lake Ontario is the second-largest clean energy centre in the Western Hemisphere (the largest is the Bruce nuclear plant on the east shore of Lake Huron). A multi-unit station consisting of four 860-megawatt reactors, Darlington has been providing bulk electricity, with zero carbon emissions, almost continuously for more than two decades.

Darlington NGS on Lake Ontario. Though physically small—it occupies only 480 hectares, or roughly 1,200 acres—Darlington generates more than enough electricity to power the City of Toronto 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In 2015, its oldest unit will be up for refurbishment. How, and whether, this should be done will be discussed in a four-day public regulatory hearing in Courtice, Ontario in early December. The matter at hand is the environmental assessment of Ontario Power Generation’s application to pull old components and pipes out of Darlington Unit 1 and replace them with new ones.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Canada’s nuclear regulator, will run the hearing. You can view the hearing agenda here.

The CANDU reactor face during refurbishment. Refurbishment involves replacing feeders, fuel channels, and calandria tubes. These, along with steam generators, are the main components of the heat transport system, which turns the heat from nuclear fission reactions into the motive power that spins the turbine generator.

Refurbishment will extend the reactors’ operating lives for another 30 years or so. Given that Darlington is at this moment cranking out 3,480 megawatts of carbon-free electricity, more than enough to power the entire City of Toronto, the December public hearing is of paramount importance. Without Darlington, Ontario would be generating those 3,480 MW of electricity with coal or natural gas, two extremely carbon-heavy fossil fuels.

For an idea of the environmental impact of that, consider that a natural gas-fired generator dumps 550 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal man-made greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere for every kilowatt-hour it generates. So if Darlington’s annual output were provided instead by gas-fired generators, those generators would dump nearly 16 million metric tons of CO2 into our air. (0.00055 tons CO2 x 3,480,000 kW x 8,870 hours in a year x 95 percent capacity factor = 15,928,308 tons CO2.)

This point underscores the decisive importance of nuclear energy to human society. We simply cannot continue to dump CO2 into our air in the current quantities. But without nuclear energy, that is exactly what we will do.

The upcoming CNSC hearing in Courtice will include attendees who have been for decades professionally dedicated to replacing nuclear with fossil-fired energy. For decades, the anti-nuclear crowd—working in lockstep with the fossil fuel lobby—has been very visible at these kinds of hearings, and for decades their predominance at these hearings may have given the impression that there is an anti-nuclear consensus among the public.

But as the health of the natural environment has attained stature as a public issue, others have become concerned about the future of our energy supply. These others have applied critical examination to all of the claims of the anti-nuclear lobby and have found them laughably deficient on all fronts. And they have gotten busy and savvy with social media. One of the best blogs on the internet, Rod Adams’s Atomic Insights, publishes very well presented and almost-daily analyses of the political economy of energy. One of Rod’s recurring themes is the role of cui bono—who benefits?—in energy advocacy. He has over the years built an extremely convincing case that the fossil fuel industries are the chief beneficiaries of the trumped-up anti-nuclear hysteria that has accompanied casualty-free events like the Fukushima meltdowns of March 2011. This kind of analysis is nearly absent from the mainstream media, which in the internet era is increasingly forced to swap glowing pro-fossil coverage in return for lucrative advertising revenue from fossil industries.

When you consider cui bono as Rod Adams presents it, you realize the motives, and resources, underpinning much of the anti-nuclear lobbying seen at public regulatory hearings.

I mentioned last week the tireless efforts of Meredith Angwin, who has fought tirelessly in Vermont to rally support for the state’s largest clean energy source, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The pro-nuclear side scored a recent coup at a public meeting where it outnumbered the anti-nuclear side. This is the kind of ground game the pro-nuclear side needs to fight.

How exactly was this ground game executed? Howard Shaffer, a longtime member of the American Nuclear Society who has fought alongside Meredith through the Yankee wars, spells it out in a very interesting piece at the ANS Nuclear Cafe. After describing the meeting, Howard says this:

Nuclear power supporters are out there. With organization and support, they will come forward and join in the political fray.

Plant employees are the best advertisement there is. One employee spoke of living in Vernon, and having his wife teach at and his child attend the school (about a half mile from the plant). Over the past decade, several scientific public opinion polls in Vermont have consistently shown that 65 percent of the public feels “people who work at the plant” are the most credible and trusted source of information about plant safety and operations.

Supporters need to gather and socialize. Refreshments or food is needed for morale (to prevent the “brownie deficit” syndrome). Anti nukes always have food.

A great deal can be accomplished with management support, at minimal cost.

All of these points are being covered in anticipation of the Courtice hearing on Darlington. Let’s look forward to a good four days. Ontario’s electrical future, and Canada’s role as an energy superpower, hang in the balance.

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11 years ago

Steve – thank you for your support and acknowledgement that considering cui bono (aka “follow the money”) with regard to anti nuclear actions almost inevitably leads to a recognition that there has been serious fossil fuel involvement in the movement since its inception.

It still amazes me how many of my nuclear energy colleagues cannot understand just how threatening our success would be to the wealth and power of the established fossil fuel industry.

Sure, we would keep burning a large quantity of hydrocarbons every year, but the amount would be diminishing rather than increasing. Energy prices would be falling as we improved our ability to bring nuclear energy projects on line within schedule and under budget. There is no recipe for falling revenues that works better than falling sales volume that is combined with falling market prices.

Though I know there are some good people working in the fossil fuel industry, the people at the top are generally not the kind of people I like to hang out with. Therefore I cannot shed any tears as I work to push them a little farther down the economic ladder.

Rod Adams

Louis Bertrand
11 years ago

The arrogance of this column is shocking. I will be one of the members of the public presenting my opposition to the rebuild of Darlington and I am doing it in my own time and on my own dime not, as the blogger states, “working in lockstep with the fossil fuel lobby”. Speaking of ‘cui bono’, how about them subsidies? As long as the nuclear industry is propped up to occupy half of Ontario’s energy supply, it will crowd out any efforts at renewable energy and – more importantly – demand management (conservation).

Robert C Azzopardi
11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

I am wasting my time answering this response.
If you want to discuss subsidies what about the fact that the nuclear industrie’s liability is only $75 million which is ridiculous when we consider the cost of Chernobyl, three mile island and now the ongoing cost of Fukushima which is predicted to be in the hundreds of billions. The public bears the cost of insuring the nuclear industry which is a subsidy. If there was a small risk of a nuclear accident why are our homes and businnesses not coved by insurance?
Your comparison of cost is flawed because there is no accounting for safely sequestering the waste stream for thousands of years and the cost of decommissioning the reactors which I believe is the reason for extending the life of the Darlington reactors beyond their predicted 40 year life span.
By the way the cheapest electricity is hydro. Do your homework before spouting more stupidity.

Louis Bertrand
11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

First, I don’t think that you understand how insurance works. The province makes me buy liability insurance before it allows me to drive. The liability is to cover the compensation to a victim of an accident caused by myself. Essentially, the insurance company is making a bet that I won’t have an accident and they won’t have to pay out (and get to keep the money from my premiums). If the risk of liability is high (I’m a bad driver or I crash into expensive cars), their payout would be higher and thus they charge me more premiums. Simple, no?
In the case of nuclear, it’s as if there was a realistic chance that I could in a single accident smash all the cars on highway 401. The payout would be enormous, so the insurance company covers its bet and bills me with high premium. They’re so high that I can’t afford to drive so I run to Ottawa and ask the government to make the bet instead of the insurance company and I can continue to drive. It’s just bad public sector economics.

I like the way you keep spinning that I’m somehow a big fan of fossil fuels. Pipeline companies pay their own insurance premiums and foot the bill for their own spills. If the cleanups are inadequate, then let’s make sure they’re monitored better. Any industry has to be responsible for its messes and it’s up to us to demand better. The nuclear industry is heavily regulated and therefore should be just as insistent as the rest of us about the lax regulations around the oil and gas sector. Maybe some of that lobbying money should be redirected?

Louis Bertrand
11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Profitable: OPG is only profitable because the Harris government shifted its debt to a separate entity, the Ontario Electricity Financial Corporation. Robert already pointed out the liability subsidy but since you’re so keen on economics, I recommend the Fraser Institute’s study of the subject: (yeah, I’m a leftie but on this I agree with the Fraser Institute, how odd is that?)

Reliable: suppose I have a sports car that can drive 200km/hr, but it’s in the shop for weeks on end. What’s the average speed? Same with nuclear power plants. When they’re out, it’s for years. What do you use in the meantime?

The FIT rates go to electricity actually produced. No power? No tariff! Subsidies to the nuclear industry go for R&D (AECL for example) and infrastructure building (cost and time overruns for example) before they produce enough to light a curly bulb. Let’s not mention export guarantees for overseas sales.

Cleaner: I’ll stand next to a solar panel. You can stand next to a bundle of irradiated fuel. Let me know how that works out for you. Oh and don’t give me the GHG argument – it only works if you factor out the mining and refining.

Louis Bertrand
11 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

I think that you misunderstand the idea behind FIT. It gives incentives to _production_ , not anything else. It avoids the boondoggles we’ve seen in the past over R&D, construction, maintenance, financing for various tech sectors. The other principle of FIT is that the tariffs are gradually removed as the industry gets on its feet. Germany just reduced theirs. The fact that Ontario governments (and opposition parties) are confused over green energy is not the fault of the FIT strategy.

Robert C Azzopardi
11 years ago

It is obvious that both the article and Rod Adams comments purposely
ignored the very important fact that those who are opposed to nuclear
are also opposed to other contaminating forms of energy. The battle
Is between nuclear and renewable energy, namely solar, wind, geothermal,
biogas and hydro.
You as shills for the nuclear industry continue to play the same game
of misleading facts and disinformation to attempt to influence the
public. Get your head out of your a** and look at Germany as a start.

Maury Markowitz
10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Original statement:

“Is between nuclear and renewable energy, namely solar, wind, geothermal, biogas and hydro”

Steve’s reply:

“Wind/solar/geothermal cannot possibly provide grid scale power”

Ah yes, a further example. Ahhh, perhaps not! He goes on to say:

“let me ask you this: where, in the continent of North America, exist untapped large-scale hydro resources that are cost-effectively accessible to grids”

Seriously? Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Labrador, Saskatchewan, Alberta. To start. There’s more undeveloped commercially reasonable hydro in Canada than developed commercially reasonable hydro in Canada.

“The answer: nowhere. So let’s leave hydro off the list.”

A fine example of Steve’s response every time this comes up – pretend it doesn’t exist.

“We’re talking about realistic alternatives, not make-believe ones”

Precisely. So please stop making up arguments and explain exactly why you keep dismissing Canada’s #1 power source without a single shred of evidence.

robert budd
11 years ago

I can’t see why we even entertain this debate. I’ve lived off-grid for 23 years using wind, solar and a fossil fueled generator. Being totally responsible for my own electricity needs has made me a bit of an energy wonk. Its also given me a strong appreciation for the huge benefit nuclear energy has provided for this province. This long, hot, windless summer was a great example.
Adding signifigant amounts of wind or solar(not likely to happen)in Ontario will just ensure a greater reliance on fossil fuel, unless someone magically comes up with cost free utility scale storage that doesn’t have a huge ecological footprint. Ain’t gonna happen.
Wind is heavily subsidized by the high FIT price, as well as the fact the public is picking up the tab for doubled capacity in natural gas and the inefficiencies it creates, the wasted public asset of spilled hydro electric, manuevered reactors and the massive transmission investment to integrate far flung wind developments.
If instead of trying to pick a winner, the province put a RFP out for the best emmisions benefit/cost/ecological footprint for a DISPACTHABLE electricity source, wind or solar wouldn’t even be considered. And rightly so if you are serious about the environment.
When I look around my area, I see the highest/capita incomes, the highest avg. education levels, the highest property values, in the vicinity of Bruce nuclear. Closer to home , I see wind development owned by Enbridge , Epcor, Boone Pickens(all fossil interests)driving down residential property values, using large cumulative amounts of class 1 farmland, dividing communities, and providing a pathetic amount of FIT money and jobs back to the area. Also no insurance provided for the 10% health affected by those living in the midst of a now industrialized, revolving landscape.
Like I said , why are we even having this debate? If I heard the wind development was cancelled and we instead were promised a reactor, I would do a happy dance.