Ontario–federal nuclear negotiation continues, as does CANDU-climate disconnect

Last month the Canadian federal government announced it was going to privatize Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL). The medical isotope part of the business would be separated from power reactors. The feds hoped that this would thereby ease Ontario’s troubled mind as the province, in the middle of finalizing its choice of a vendor to build at least two new reactors at the Darlington generating station, weighed the implications of choosing an AECL encumbered with bad press stemming from its research reactor at Chalk River, whose medical isotope production is halted due to maintenance problems.

However, all the federal announcement did was to give Ontario yet another reason to publicly pressure the feds to backstop potential cost overruns.

Yesterday morning Ontario energy and infrastructure minister George Smitherman told reporters the province has all but chosen AECL, but that the company’s price is way too high. Smitherman said “the ball is in the court of the government of Canada.” This continues a negotiation that began before March of 2008, when Ontario launched its first-ever international competition for reactor vendors. The feds, who own AECL, want Ontario to buy Canadian, and Ontario wants the feds to put their fiscal weight behind a firm, and reasonable, price. This negotiation is wide-ranging and complex, and involves an issue critical to the success of the so-called nuclear renaissance; see article.

Is there a way out of this wrangle? The whole country is in a recession, and Ontario is hurting especially badly. You might think that with all the talk of getting infrastructure shovels into the ground there would be extra attention paid to move a project that will pay off so handsomely in high-paying jobs and low-cost, carbon-free electricity. As Smitherman was talking to reporters yesterday, AECL-made CANDU reactors in Ontario were generating over 9,800 megawatts of carbon-free power—more than 58 percent of Ontario’s total and 97.4 percent of the nuclear fleet’s rated capability at that hour. The emission-intensity of Ontario power at that moment was 104 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour. That’s clean. It means electric-powered air conditioning in Ontario is far less carbon-intensive, Btu for Btu, than gas-powered AC.

(At the same time, wind, touted by anti-nuclear greens as a viable alternative to the hated atom, was contributing a paltry 50 MW. This represented less than one percent of Ontario’s total electricity, and not even six percent of the entire wind fleet’s rated capability.)

The federal Conservatives have made much of their plan to see that 90 percent of Canada’s electricity is carbon-free by 2020. Well, the 3,500 MW of power from the planned new reactors would be a giant step in that direction.

Can’t we all just get along?

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14 years ago

“Cant we all just get along?” What a perfectly reasonable request, and yet something that wont happen. We are suffering through a period of fanatical devotion, during which individuals demonstrate their loyalty to their cause with acts of supreme unreasonableness. The ultimate such act being the suicide mission. Faced with this kind of opposition it is difficult to figure out what “getting along” even means. The loud and shrill arguments against nuclear power will only increase in intensity as the prospect of actually building some new capability becomes more likely. The benefits of new nuclear facilities are long in coming while the political costs are immediate in the sense of lots of bad press, so politicians will always squirm and twist to find delays and reasons to avoid situations that make them responsible. The renewed focus on the positive coefficient of reactivity associated with void developments in the coolant system will keep the politicians away from a pro-nuclear stance for another decade in Canada. This discussion may be the last straw for AECL itself. Reactor designs from the Americans, such as the IFR and the LFTR are much more politically sellable in terms of passive safety and poliferation. Can AECL make the changes needed to adopt these better designs? I doubt it.