Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment Blog
January 2018
Jack Gibbons

Replacing Ontario’s nuclear energy?

This blog, prepared by Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, is being shared as a guest post to respond to a few CAPE donors who have asked the question: “Where would Ontario get its baseload electricity if it shut down its nuclear plants?”

For close to 50 years, Ontario has relied on nuclear power to supply a large share of its electricity. In that half century, the cost of nuclear power has climbed steadily, the risk of nuclear accidents has been made terribly real by events in Chernobyl and Fukushima, and no jurisdiction anywhere – including Ontario – has managed to devise a practical solution for dealing with the tonnes of dangerous radioactive waste sitting outside nuclear reactors, including in the heart of the Greater Toronto Area.

In short, nuclear power has largely been a failure. It has never even come close to meeting the claim that power produced from reactors would be “too cheap to meter” and never resolved the inherent dangers of combining highly complex systems with massive failure risks.

It’s little wonder that nuclear is now a “sunset” technology with most places in the world moving rapidly away from a technology that has now been eclipsed by increasingly low-cost renewable energy systems.

Ironically, Ontario was an early adopter on renewable energy with the passage of the Green Energy and Economy Act in 2009. But the nuclear industry and its allies did a good job of blaming costs that were incurred in rebuilding a dilapidated electricity system entirely on the move to adopt a modest amount of green energy. These claims actually never added up, but they made good headlines.

Today, Ontario has reversed course, moving back to a multi-billion dollar emphasis on nuclear and ignoring the fact that renewable power has never been more attractive (prices for both solar and wind set new low records every month it seems) – it cancelled its last procurement round for large renewable projects and just ended its innovative Feed-in Tariff program.

The funny thing is, Ontario actually has a green power advantage many other places can only dream of: proximity to one of the world’s green energy powerhouses. Our neighbour, Quebec, is one of the largest producers of water power in the world. It also has stupendous (and low cost) wind power potential and, like Ontario, more than decent solar power potential. The thing is, by working together, Ontario and Quebec could create a super-powered partnership. Renewable energy works best when distributed over a wide area to compensate for conditions that may not always be favourable everywhere. So Ontario can send Quebec wind power at night or in winter when it is needed by our neighbours, while Quebec can literally store “intermittent” power by using wind or solar rather than water power when those sources are running strong in either province.

Together, we can create a system that is low cost (Quebec has the lowest electricity prices in North America), reliable (through a diverse system that doesn’t leave us dependent on one or two aging nuclear plants), and safe (no waste products or accident risk).

And what can put this partnership over the top is working together to maximize energy efficiency. Energy efficiency has proven to be a very low cost way to keep the lights on in Ontario at just 2 cents per kilowatt hour. If Quebec followed Ontario’s lead in exploiting this tremendous resource, it would be easily able to meet the demand for safe, clean power from both Ontario and a number of U.S. states. It’s a simple recipe for success and Quebec has made it clear it is ready to get things cooking. Now we just have to convince Ontario to get into the kitchen.