June 16, 2008
Ontario’s Liberal government will soon announce the construction of new nuclear reactors, likely at the site of the existing reactors at the Darlington A station near Toronto. If history is any judge, the construction of those reactors will not be smooth, and may not happen at all.
The new Darlington reactors aren’t really new. Ontario Hydro maps in the 1970s not only showed "Darlington A," the nuclear station that the government then announced amid political controversy, but also "Darlington B" and "Darlington C."
Darlington C would soon disappear from the planners’ maps, never to reappear. Darlington B would also disappear, and not reappear until 2008 — the Ontario government’s announcement this week, in effect, is an attempt to resurrect the 1970s dream of Darlington B.
The government’s official pronouncement of three decades ago that Darlington A would be built was more a government wish than a surety, even though the government provided what amounted to a blank cheque for Darlington’s construction. Darlington A, like hundreds of other reactors around the world that were then either planned or under construction, would be fiercely opposed by large segments of the public, by environmentalists, and by political parties that wanted it stopped.
Ontarians, in fact, thought they had stopped it in 1985 when they threw out the Tory government of the day in favour of David Peterson’s Liberals, who had promised to stop Darlington. By 1985, Darlington was wildly late (its planned completion date had been 1983) and wildly over budget (the $3.5-billion that had then been spent exceeded the project’s estimated $2.5-billion price tag of 1978). Rather than stop the bleeding, the Liberals instead voted to complete Darlington.
Ontarians again thought they had stopped Darlington in 1990, when they threw out the Liberals in favour of the New Democratic Party of Bob Rae, who had campaigned on a promise to impose a moratorium on nuclear power. By then, Darlington’s costs had soared to $12.9-billion and was close to completion. The NDP completed Darlington A in 1993, a decade late, for $14.4-billion, almost six times the initial estimates. Hydro then went bankrupt in what was called "the biggest corporate financial meltdown in Canadian history."
Darlington A was one of the last nuclear reactors to be built in the western world — Ontario was slower than most in recognizing the foolhardiness of relying on nuclear. Now Ontario is poised to become one of the first western jurisdictions to return to nuclear, despite Darlington’s role in the province’s demise — Hydro’s nuclear program cost the province its AAA credit rating and Ontarians are still paying off Hydro’s stranded debt of $20-billion.
Construction of Darlington B, if it proceeds, will be fought by environmental organizations and by opposition political parties, who have very good reasons today and will have possibly even better reasons tomorrow to pull the plug on nuclear expansion. As one example, solar power has made great strides in Israel and the U. S.: The technology may be economic and available on a large scale in the next few years. As another, clean coal looks increasingly attractive both environmentally and economically.
In contrast, nuclear remains as uneconomic and uncertain as ever — as even the Ontario government recognizes. "It’s an expensive proposition, there’s no doubt about that," Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty acknowledged last week, adding that there’s no telling how expensive: "It’s really hard to nail down precise costs today [since] we don’t know what’s going to happen to so many of the costs of so many of the inputs."
Nuclear’s uncontrollable costs, in fact, have been a constant over its history in Ontario and they remain a constant elsewhere in the western world. France — the only country to go full bore for nuclear — has found nuclear to be so ruinously expensive that it’s bringing its old oil-fired stations back into service, some of which were built in the 1960s.
In Finland, the first western country to have actually begun construction on a new nuclear plant in recent years, delays proved so serious that, two and a half years after the start of construction, the project had fallen behind schedule by more than two years. The project is already 50% over budget. Cost estimates for other nuclear plants that are being considered have soared even more.
Ontario can cut its losses now and abandon nuclear expansion. Or it can spend the next decade or two wondering if it’s too late to do so.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.