Nuke sector on upswing?

Lauren Krugel
Canadian Press
March 17, 2008

CALGARY — With two nuclear mega-projects planned for Alberta and Ontario, the sector is showing signs of growth for the first time in decades, but critics warn those sorts of major projects are fraught with risk.

On Thursday, Ontario power firm Bruce Power said it wants to build Western Canada’s first nuclear power plant near Peace River, Alta. The proposed $10-billion facility could produce enough electricity to power two million homes by 2017.

And a major new nuclear plant planned for Ontario could to power all the homes and businesses in Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, with a capacity of up to 3,500 megawatts.

There’s word New Brunswick’s government is also mulling building a second power plant at Point Lepreau.

As the world looks to secure a clean, inexpensive energy supply capable of providing electricity to its ever-expanding population, “nuclear is always presented in that scenario as part of the solution,” said Claudia Lemieux of the Canadian Nuclear Association.

“There’s all kinds of spinoff benefits that the nuclear industry brings, including high paying jobs and a whole cluster or research,” she said.

Nuclear power has been — controversially — touted by some environmentalists as a good substitute to dirtier fossil fuels, since it does not produce any greenhouse gas emissions, but managing its extremely dangerous waste is a major drawback.

While the cost of building a nuclear power plant is exponentially higher than building a coal or natural gas powered plant, the economics work in the long run, Lemieux said.

“From a cost point of view it is competitive. It’s just that its capital initial costs are expensive.”

For the first time, international private companies will be able to bid on the Alberta build instead of the contract going automatically to Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., the crown corporation behind the internationally used Candu reactor.

“It’s certainly an exciting development. It’s a bold development,” said Norman Rubin of the Energy Probe think tank. “The financial risks are killers to this from an investment point of view, so what’s especially exciting about this is the possibility that governments won’t have to backstop this.”

Rubin warns the nuclear industry has a dismal record of keeping projects on budget and on schedule and that once the plants are built, they are prone to breakdown.

“There are two kinds of nuclear generating stations in the world. There are the future theoretical ones, which are wonderful. And there are the real world ones which break your heart and destroy your wealth and run the risk of leaving you in the dark if you actually depend on them,” he said.

Another huge issue is going to be getting enough skilled workers to build the planned nuclear mega-projects, especially in Alberta’s already squeezed labour market, Rubin said.

And the industry won’t only be short on pipe fitters and welders. Engineers who graduated from university during the past 20 years will not have expected nuclear construction to become a growth field, so it will be tough to get a hold of the brains necessary to design and run a nuclear reactor.

Nuclear proponents are “pinning their hopes” on concern over global warming to get their multi-billion-dollar projects off the ground, said Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

“What we have here is a consortium of large corporations whose business is building new reactors and they’re trying very hard to stampede people in this direction,” he said.

“The question is are we really heading off on an expensive proposition, which is really not going to solve the problem, but just add extra problems on top of the ones we already have?”

Environment Minister John Baird said last week that the federal government would start cracking down on building new coal-fired plants, the biggest global warming culprits.

“The nuclear industry sees this as a golden opportunity. It’s sort of like a manna from heaven,” Edwards said.

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