Darlington nuclear projects: clean energy, high paid jobs for Ontario help to stem ocean acidification

Anyone interested in the role that major clean energy capital projects play in local, regional, and national economies should watch the upcoming refurbishment at the Darlington nuclear generating station on Lake Ontario. Darlington is the second-biggest clean energy centre in the Western Hemisphere (the biggest is the Bruce nuclear station on Lake Huron). At 0800 this morning Darlington was generating 3,489 megawatts of carbon-free electricity—that was nearly 18 percent of Ontario’s total generation. The station is vitally important to Ontario, Canada, and the planet. Without it, we would be getting those 3,489 MW of electricity from natural gas fired plants, and dumping, every single hour of every day, nearly 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas, into our air. Much of that CO2 winds up in the world’s oceans, making them more acidic. Acidification is a major environmental problem, and threatens vital fisheries.

Oceans of acid. Click to enlarge. An increase in CO2 concentration alters the argonite saturation state of the ocean. This impairs the ability of calcifying organisms such as corals, diatoms, and shelled invertebrates to create calcium carbonate structures. The darker the yellow, the greater the impact. Image courtesy of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), a research centre of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The refurbishment of this plant involves replacing major components of the reactor and heat transport system. It is a massive undertaking, and requires a highly skilled and well coordinated workforce. Most of that workforce will live within commuting distance of the plant, which means that these thousands of high paid men and women will spend significant amounts of their disposable income in the community that hosts the plant. That is extremely welcome news for the host community: it means that local businesses will thrive and hire local workers, who will themselves have disposable income to spend. The host community, centred on Courtice, Ontario, has thrived for years because of Darlington.

It is difficult to imagine a more positive and wide-ranging outcome from the 1979 decision of Ontario Hydro, the former vertically integrated provincially owned electric utility, to build this clean energy centre. Darlington over its 23 years of operation has generated close to 750 billion kilowatt-hours of clean energy, and thereby avoided the dumping of 403 million metric tons of ocean acidifying CO2. It has generated over $30 billion in revenue for the publicly owned company that runs it; when that public company makes a profit, which is often, we citizens of Ontario are the beneficiaries.

Former Areva North America CEO Jacques Besnainou referred to in-operation nuclear plants as “cash machines.” He is right. Once built, nuclear plants generate enormous amounts of steady electricity, and hence enormous amounts of steady revenue. That is why the company that owns Darlington, Ontario Power Generation (which is the generation successor of Ontario Hydro), will refurbish the plant. Refurbishment will give each of the four reactors another 25 to 30 years of operating life. That means another 750 billion kWh, and another $30 billion earned on behalf of the people of Ontario.

Even better, refurbishment will bring thousands of high paid workers into the area, which means more jobs in the local economy.

Best of all, it means Ontario will avoid dumping another 400 million metric tons of ocean acidifying CO2 into the air.

Ontario could do even better than this. The provincial government has called for 2,000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity at Darlington. That capacity represents 230 million more tons of CO2 avoided over the first 25 years of the operation of that plant.

We should get on with building this new capacity. We are leading the world today in clean energy; let’s extend that lead.

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10 years ago

Hear! Hear!

… but you might want to check your use of “trillion”.

Bob Walker
10 years ago

Great article.
Thousands of good jobs, stronger host community, reliable supply of electricity for Ontario, environmental benefits, and all owned by the people of Ontario. It doesn’t get much better than that.

J.B. Cutcher
10 years ago

Kudos to your interesting blog. I write to pick a nit.

Is Darlington the second biggest “clean energy center” in the Western Hemisphere? Palo Verde in Arizona is 3,739 MW according to the Salt River Project’s website. Other sources give varying figures, with Arizona Public Service saying “more than 4,000 megawatts,” but by every source I can find, it does appear that Palo Verde has a little bit of an edge on Darlington.

J.B. Cutcher
10 years ago

The flip answer is that saying “We’re Number Two!” just doesn’t have the cachet of being Number One.

More seriously, I suspect that it may have to do with the fact that their nuclear operations are in no danger from a hostile state or federal government. They have an extremely valuable asset but under prevailing economic and regulatory conditions, nobody west of the Mississippi is seriously contemplating a new nuclear power plant.

Under the circumstances , the best thing they can do is keep a low profile. Stay out of the news, hope everybody forgets you’re there. Emphasizing clean generation from Palo Verde can only sharpen the contrast with the dirty coal plants, some of which have come under regulatory fire recently. The last thing management wants to do is reinforce the disadvantages of fossil fuels in the public’s mind, since they want to keep all of their current options open.

If management were seriously contemplating nuclear expansion, it would be a different story. But the rate structures for new nuclear, combined with low costs for shale gas and locally-mined coal, which can be brought into production with a minimal capital investment as compared to a nuclear power station, means the nuclear option is not on the table.

From the newspaper articles about the shutdown at San Onofre, it appears that the man in the street is very suspicious of nuclear power, if not actively hostile. I do not see any evidence of an awareness of long-term costs as opposed to other methods of generating electricity on a large scale. Rather, they just know it is scary and unsafe, which is all they’ve been told by the press and Hollywood for over 30 years. At the same time, they have only the vaguest ideas of what would replace nuclear energy, apart from a naive confidence that wind and solar can do it all.

The owner of a nuclear plant could make a frontal assault on this colossal ignorance, And in the case of San Onofre or Vogtle, they have to. But the owners of Palo Verde can take the position that the less their names appear in news stories, the better.