Thanks to the eHealth boondoggle, opponents of nuclear energy have an effective new weapon in their battle with the Ontario government: the public is in no mood for yet another example of incompetence and massive cost overruns.
Leaving aside the potential dangers inherent with nuclear plants and the waste they generate, there’s a pragmatic argument to be made in favour of alternatives simply based on cost. Nuclear plants have always come in way over budget, underperformed and then required billions in refurbishing expenses.
Although then-minister of energy George Smitherman scrapped plans for two new nuclear reactors when bids came in at $26 billion – 3.7 times the Ontario Power Authority’s forecast – a newly released report shows OPA plans to derive half of its new electricity supply from nuclear over the next three years.
“The OPA estimates were nowhere close. Imagine the cost overruns on $26 billion – that turns eHealth into a pygmy scandal,” says Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.
Alternative energy supplies and a push toward conservation would be more effective and far cheaper than the nuclear option, he stresses.
Conservation efforts, for instance, work out to a cost of about $0.03 per kWh versus $0.21 for nuclear power. Then there’s a cost of $0.10 to $0.14 for electricity from wind farms or $0.09 per kWh for hydro-based power from Quebec.
With greater efficiencies, we could reduce overall demand by as much as 50 per cent by the time many of Ontario’s aging reactors reach the end of their lifespans in 2021, says Gibbons.
That’s in addition to meeting the province’s goal of phasing out coal-fired plants, what the alliance calls the single-largest greenhouse gas reduction initiative in North America, equivalent to taking almost seven million cars off the road.
The Ontario Clean Air Alliance also advocates investing in co-generation opportunities: using the heating systems in larger buildings to generate electricity. In effect, that would provide two services for the price of the same natural gas being burned today.
Combined heat and power (CHP) plants can be installed in apartment buildings, condominiums, shopping centres, hospitals, schools, airports and factories. Electricity supplied by such facilities would cost less than $0.06 per kWh.
“With all these options, new nuclear is the highest cost way to keep our lights on,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to throw good money after bad.”
Why, then, does the government continue down that road?
First, there’s a powerful lobby from the nuclear industry. And there’s an institutional preference for large projects rather than small, decentralized options.
“There’s a strong bias in favour of big, centralized megaprojects.”
That approach – “1950s thinking and policies” – is entrenched, and its proponents have the ear of government. Convincing Premier Dalton McGuinty to take another path will be difficult, but Gibbons sees reasons to be optimistic.
While most of us want only to have the lights come on when we flip the switch, paying little heed to how the electricity flows there, there is a growing awareness about environmental concerns. And, failing that, there’s the issue of our wallets: we certainly don’t want to see rates rise dramatically, which is what could happen if we opt for expensive nuclear reactors.
While nuclear proponents tout the the absence of greenhouse gas emissions, Gibbons discounts that. First off, the lifecycle of nuclear – from construction to decommissioning – is fraught with environmental downsides, including the release of greenhouse gases. More to the point, the long lead time for rolling out nuclear means it won’t have the desired impact: we have to act now to start countering the climate change models.
To date, given nuclear’s track record of breakdowns and under-delivery, reliance on that technology hasn’t meant a reduction of greenhouse gases: every time there’s a shortfall, the province presses in to service the coal-fired plants – the worst emitters – it wants to mothball.
“We have to focus on the lowest-cost options if we are going to act quickly and meet the province’s target of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050,” he says. “We can’t afford to continue to waste money on projects that don’t work.”
As well, a decentralized approach would see far more economic benefits. Small projects to upgrade insulation values and make homes more efficient, for instance, would provide local jobs in communities across the province. Small co-generation projects would spread the work, and provide for a more reliable network. None of those upsides exist with huge, centralized nuclear plants.
For both ecological and economic reasons, changes are coming to the way we generate electricity. The decisions we make today will have an impact for years to come. Large projects give the impression government is doing something. Actually doing something different would be better.
“I think it’s what the vast majority of the people in Ontario want.”