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Let’s end Ontario’s nuclear power age

David H. Martin and Shawn-Patrick Stensil

A version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star on December 5, 2003.

Germany has seen the light, and it’s not nuclear powered. A few weeks ago Germany quietly shut down the first of 19 nuclear reactors as part of a long-term plan to phase out nuclear power and phase in conservation and renewable energy.

Unfortunately, Ontario remains mired in its misguided commitment to nuclear power. The old guard still advocates that we dig an even deeper hole and jump in by rebuilding old nuclear plants and building new ones.

In 1997, the former Ontario Hydro shut down eight reactors because of poor performance and safety problems. This was the world’s largest nuclear shutdown. But Hydro foolishly committed itself to rebuilding these old lemon reactors.

The restart of four Pickering reactors was estimated at $800 million, but by 2002 it had tripled to $2.5 billion. Today, only one of the reactors has been restarted — more than three years late and costing well over $1 billion — but it was shut down again in November when a pressure relief valve blew. Two of the four reactors at the Bruce “A” nuclear station have been restarted by the lessee, Bruce Power — but only at the cost of a sweetheart contract that relieves the private consortium of responsibility for radioactive waste and reactor decommissioning.

There is an electricity crunch coming, but the five reactors that remain shut down should stay shut down permanently. The futile commitment to restart them has wasted six years and untold resources that could have contributed to cheap, clean, green alternatives.

The McGuinty government has promised to shut down Ontario Power Generation’s five coal plants (7,500 megawatts) by 2007. In addition, all of Ontario’s nuclear reactors are set to shut down between 2010 and 2020, without further massive expenditures like Pickering. This is an opportunity, not a calamity, but there’s no more time to waste.

A recent study for the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout shows that coal and nuclear plants can both be replaced with conservation, high-efficiency gas generation, interprovincial imports, and renewables.

Ending electricity price subsidies will moderate demand, but the Dalton McGuinty government also needs to dramatically increase its pre-election conservation commitment of 5 per cent demand reduction by 2007, and 10 per cent renewables increase by 2010. We also need ambitious longer-term targets like the German goal of 50 per cent renewables by 2050.

Ontario’s electricity crisis cannot be solved by choosing either coal or nuclear power.

Coal pollution harms the climate and produces smog and acid rain. Nuclear power has its own environmental problems — radioactive waste, emissions and the risk of reactor meltdown. Coal and nuclear are a dirty tag team since coal is used for the huge daily and seasonal peaks in electricity demand that nuclear can’t meet. Pollution has soared in the last six years when coal plants filled the gap left by broken-down CANDU reactors. Rebuilding nuclear plants does not guarantee good performance in the future. Pickering was rebuilt in the late 1980s, but it was shut down again in 1997. We are now paying for it a third time.

Advocates of new nukes need to rethink their attitude. Think about a nuclear meltdown beside Canada’s largest urban area. The toll would be far higher than the thousands of victims of thyroid cancer and other diseases from the Chernobyl accident. Then there’s the financial cost.

The Darlington nuclear station was estimated at $4 billion, but finally cost over $14 billion. Then eight of 20 reactors (36 per cent of nuclear capacity) were shut down in 1997. Building a new, untested reactor design, as advocated by some, is an even wackier idea. So what’s the solution?

After deciding to phase out nuclear power, Germany walked the talk with green energy. Over 12,000 megawatts of wind power have been installed since 2000 (one-third of global wind capacity); 100,000 photovoltaic solar panels (300 megawatts) have been installed on home rooftops and another 200 megawatts is expected in 2004.

Over 130,000 people are now employed by the renewable energy industry. Ontario’s electricity debate has focused on public vs. private electricity. The real issue should be the technologies used; their cost and environmental impacts.

We need both public and private involvement to build a sustainable electricity system.

The first step is political leadership to set the ground rules — phase out nukes and coal and promote renewable energy and conservation. The decision is painless: don’t waste any more money trying to fix old nuclear or coal plants. Spend the money on green energy to protect the environment, create jobs, keep electricity costs down and keep the lights on.

David H. Martin is senior policy adviser, and Shawn-Patrick Stensil is director of atmosphere and energy for Sierra Club Canada.

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