At six a.m. today (June 19), the Ontario nuclear fleet was providing 10,550 megawatts of electric power to the provincial grid. That works out to over 62 percent of the supply. Nuclear output has rarely been over 10,000 MW since last September, because of a combination of low demand (due to mild weather), a supply glut, environmental policies that favour natural gas over cheaper and more flexible coal, and system rules (designed to support the environmental policies) that give pride of place to inefficient and therefore expensive sources like wind. These factors have conspired to constrain nuclear output, which is far cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than the allegedly green sources that are supposed to replace coal.
Why would the powers-that-be arrange things so that expensive, inefficient, and unreliable sources like wind get priority on the grid? Quite simply, because wind is “popular” among the interest groups whose opinions and demands the government feels it is necessary to heed. Somehow, through a convergence of circumstances, that electorally important constituency happens to occupy the exact same geographic ground to which the current government owes almost its entire existence. That ground is located in the core of the city of Toronto. It is euphemistically referred to as The 416 (see Fig. 1).
The current Liberal government holds most of the seats in the 416; the NDP holds the rest. If either party were to lose any of their 416 seats, it would be curtains. So a lot of the game-framed rhetoric of both parties is developed with the 416 in mind, and in the current minority government situation at Queen’s Park almost all the rhetoric is game-framed.
Focusing on 416 is difficult when you consider there are other voting regions in the province. From the Liberals’ point of view, that is a particularly painful fact: they hold a very tenuous minority government (they used to hold majorities) precisely because they were forced in the October 2011 provincial election to choose between the 416 and a number of critical rural ridings on the issue of wind power.
The Liberals wisely chose to mollify the 416 on that issue. Attempting to mollify the affected and aggrieved rural ridings, where wind turbines had been foisted upon the local communities because of policies the Liberals themselves implemented, would have been a waste of time; the Liberals would have lost those seats anyway. And rhetorically backing away from wind would have been a bad signal to the core 416 voters. There is an amalgam of issues that 416 voters hold dear, and for some reason wind power is one of them.
So during the election campaign the Liberals went far out of their way to talk up wind power. They pretty much had to.
But what about nuclear? From the first paragraph of this post, it is obvious that while wind may be the talk of clean energy, nuclear is the walk. Voters in the 416 like wind, or so the organized pro-wind lobby would have us believe. But what do 416 voters think of the atom?
Wind may be the talk of clean energy. But on the actual criteria of clean energy—amount generated, emissions per unit generated, total emissions, physical footprint of the plant that generates the energy, physical size of the waste product—nuclear is the walk.
In answering that question, the government has played it safe and gone with the official “green” interpretation: 416 voters do not like nuclear power. (With the important and very recent exception of energy minister Chris Bentley; see article.) But that’s the self-justifying interpretation of a self-interested, professional, organized lobby. On a numbers basis, the professional “green” lobby is a tiny collection of people who feel qualified to speak for the vast silent majority of voters. What does that vast silent majority really think?
And, almost as important, what do voters outside of the 416 think about nuclear power? We know that most people who are immediate neighbors of nuclear plants love them: they are engines of economic prosperity wherever they are located. For those who are not neighbors, they probably don’t think much about the issue one way or the other. That would be most Ontarians, since there are only three nuclear plants in the whole province. Think of it: three relatively tiny patches of land hold the capacity to make more than half the province’s electricity. We could power the entire province from the same three tiny patches of land.
This points up the most critical factor when it comes to a new electricity policy: land use. In “Nuclear progress in Canada” I said
If your energy strategy involves somebody else’s real property, don’t be surprised if that somebody’s legal property rights trump your energy strategy.
The Liberals learned this lesson the hard way in the last election. They are lucky they survived the lesson. Now they know that nuclear energy involves by far the least amount of land use.
So, again—how do 416 voters really view the atom as an electricity source?