Behind the costs at Darlington

Toronto Star editorial

June 22, 2008

Critics of the provincial government’s decision to expand the Darlington nuclear station have zeroed in not on safety or environmental concerns but on potential cost overruns.

The original Darlington plant, completed in 1993, was "wildly overbudget," said Lawrence Solomon of the anti-nuclear Energy Probe, citing an original cost estimate of $2.5 billion and comparing it with the final bill of $14.4 billion.

NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns referenced the same figures in the Ontario legislature and asked: "Why is this government so intent on repeating history and committing Ontario to an expensive, unreliable … nuclear future?"

That may seem like a good question. But before it is answered, some perspective is required.

First of all, the $2.5 billion starting point is a lowball estimate from the early 1970s, at least five years before any detailed planning was done by Ontario Hydro on a new nuclear station at Darlington. A more valid base figure is the $5 billion estimate released in 1978 by Hydro’s board as the go-ahead was given for detailed engineering and design. Better still is the 1981 estimate that arose from this detailed planning: $7.46 billion.

Of course, an escalation from $7.46 billion in 1981 to $14.4 billion in 1993 is still worrisome, but there are explanations for it. Interest rates were soaring in the early 1980s, well into double digits. And the project was plagued by stops and restarts ordered by a series of governments of different political stripes. Finally, as former Hydro adviser Andy Frame wrote on the Comment page on Friday, the establishment of a new regulatory regime under the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission led to design changes that drove up costs.

So if — and, granted, it is a big if — interest rates stay relatively low, the politicians keep their nerve, and the regulatory regime does not throw a curveball at the project, costs for Darlington II should not escalate anywhere near as much as they did on the original project.

Besides, what choice do we have as the existing nuclear plants come to the end of their life cycles? More power from coal, with its greenhouse-gas emissions? Or from natural gas, which has become a very expensive fuel? Or from wind, which doesn’t always blow? Or massive savings from conservation, which would require a dramatic change in our lifestyle?

Some would say yes to any or all of the above. But the Star believes that more nuclear power should be part of the mix, with appropriate oversight to ensure that costs do not run out of control.

To read the Lawrence Solomon article quoted in this editorial, please see "Darlington reactors are not really new."

This entry was posted in Energy Probe News, Nuclear Power. Bookmark the permalink.

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