The Globe and Mail

Konrad Yakabuski

Green energy – we can’t dismiss the nuclear option

Former NASA scientist James Hansen earned a reputation for hyperbole with his claim that unlocking Alberta’s oil sands would mean "game over" for the climate. So, his latest assertion – that saving the planet requires a big increase in nuclear power – naturally warrants skepticism.

It turns out Dr. Hansen, now of the Columbia University Earth Institute, has illustrious company. Scientists at Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Adelaide joined him last week in signing an open letter warning that “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

The post-Fukushima hysteria that led governments in the developed world to close nuclear plants and halt development of new ones will do major, certain damage to the planet. Despite the tiny odds of a serious nuclear accident, Germany has cranked up production at its coal stations after shuttering eight nuclear plants since 2011.

Politicians who suggest that “renewables” will pave the way to a carbon-free future are either delusional or deceptional. Wind and solar power are unreliable options with short track records. Their power can’t be stored and, unlike new reactors with 50-year lifespans, they have exhibited alarmingly high failure rates.

It is simply irresponsible to suggest that wind, solar or biomass can be more than complementary power sources. They may not even be that green. Ontario’s increasing reliance on natural-gas-fired generation to back up intermittent wind proves that overinvestment in renewables can actually lead to higher carbon emissions. And while the province will soon close its last coal plant, plans to reduce nuclear will result in more carbon over time.

Last month, Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli confirmed that the province has scrapped the purchase of two new reactors for the Darlington nuclear site. And as The Globe’s Adam Radwanski has reported, it may postpone refurbishing existing reactors at government-owned Darlington and the private Bruce station. It could also close Pickering ahead of schedule.

“It’s not wise to spend billions and billions of dollars in new nuclear when that power is not needed,” Mr. Chiarelli said in announcing his government’s decision.

Ontario’s electricity consumers might be grateful to the minister if he didn’t represent a government for which cost has never been an object. Consumers are now on the hook for the $1-billion cancellation of two gas plants, and they will pay through the teeth for the superfluous wind and solar power former premier Dalton McGuinty commissioned to look green.

No, what’s likely motivating the sudden nuclear rethink is fear of more unflattering pre-election headlines about out-of-control spending. The fiascos have paralyzed energy policymaking at Queen’s Park. Nuclear plants have a history of big cost overruns and the government can’t risk reinforcing its spendthrift image or alienating anti-nuclear New Democrats.

It’s true that Ontario currently has large electricity surpluses, but with hotter summers and (hopefully) more economic activity in its future, the province needs to take action soon to ensure it has reliable baseload electricity years from now.

The anti-nuclear Ontario Clean Air Alliance is pushing the province to sign a long-term contract with Quebec to buy cheap, emission-free hydro power. But while Quebec is currently sitting on big hydro surpluses and facing unattractive U.S. export prices, it has shown no interest in sharing its energy advantage with Ontario. Past lip service to interprovincial energy co-operation was just that.

Besides, by banking on nuclear decades ago, Ontario has accumulated a critical mass of atomic expertise. Mr. Chiarelli’s decision amounts to condemning the industry to death row. If Ontario doesn’t buy next-generation reactors from homegrown Candu Energy, there is little hope it will get any business as India, China and other countries seek emissions-free power.

For while Fukushima rattled Western politicians and empowered the anti-nukes, an atomic renaissance may be just around the corner. Dr. Hansen’s conversion to the cause is one sign of that. But Ontario’s suddenly gun-shy Energy Minister still seems stuck in the dark ages.