The Toronto Star
July 9, 2014
Ontarians have no excuse for being naive about nuclear
Given what we now know about the cost of nuclear power, why is Ontario ready to throw good money after bad to refurbish the Darlington Nuclear plant?
I admit I was young and naive back in the late 1970s when I boarded a school bus at Queen’s Park and travelled along with a shaggy group of protesters 70 kilometres east to demonstrate against the construction of the $4-billion Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. Some brought blankets to help scale the barbed-wire fence — and did that — but most of us just milled around for a few hours before leaving on the same yellow buses that had brought us.
If only we had known then the true cost of Ontario’s 20th-century nuclear empire — how after paying $30 billion to finance Darlington and its kin over the next three and a half decades, Ontarians would still owe $4 billion for the job in 2014 — the protest might have been more effective. Given the foresight, no sane citizen would have bought that deal.
But hindsight is a good enough proxy today as the engineers at Ontario Power Generation rush to complete their plans to refurbish the aging, still-not-paid-for nuclear complex — with the estimated costs of that $13-billion project seeming to rise every few months like alarm bells that never stop ringing.
History is repeating itself, but it’s no farce. With the Darlington refurbishment, Ontario risks another half-century or more of crippling debt to produce inherently dangerous, over-expensive electricity with ongoing waste-disposal costs calculated in molecular half-lives. It was a big mistake the first time, but can only be folly the second time around.
The impending decision on the fate of Darlington is something all Ontarians should consider as they fume over the stubborn persistence of that “Debt Retirement Charge” on their hydro bills — and the very real chance, if the Wynne government approves the new Darlington job, that their grandchildren will still be paying it.
The debt in question is the $20-billion overhang left by the breakup of Ontario Hydro in 1999, almost all of it the result of runaway nuclear costs, with Darlington responsible for the lion’s share of those.
At its inception, we were told that the debt would be paid off “in a reasonable time.” But it only grew as more nuclear costs emerged. All the while, Ontario ratepayers kept paying. By 2010, we had paid the proverbial $20 billion in full. But thanks to the miracle of compound interest, we still owed $15 billion to the nuclear industry.
With yet more promises in the wind of an end to the Debt Retirement Charge, the amount owing today stands at about $5 billion. So the cost of Ontario’s Darlington-led nuclear folly so far is at least $30 billion — and we still owe as much as the power plant was supposed to cost in the first place. And it now needs a $13-billion tune-up — at least — to continue functioning.
There is an easy misconception that electricity costs in Ontario are rising uncontrollably because of generous incentives paid to suppliers of renewable energy. Although renewable energy is expensive to buy, the fact is that it currently accounts for less than 10 per cent of the total generating costs that show up on residential electricity bills, according to a recent study prepared for Environmental Defence by consultants Power Advisory LLC. The study predicts that share will rise to 12 per cent by 2032.
By contrast, nuclear costs know no limits. Ontario learned as much five years ago when it went to market hoping to buy two new reactors to join the current four at Darlington. The plan died when the lowest price for half as much power came in at $28 billion.
The current refurbishment only seems economic because it is being done by a Crown corporation with unlimited access to public funds. The very real chance of massive cost overruns just means more interest for the lenders. That’s not an advantage enjoyed by any of the private developers currently under contract to supply more than eight gigawatts of renewable, non-hydro power in Ontario.
As a growing chorus of advocates and experts has pointed out, the obvious alternative to refurbishing Darlington is to buy relatively cheap, green hydro power from Quebec — and do it before the New Englanders, who know a bargain when they see it, claim every spare watt.
In any case, Ontarians today have no excuse for being naive about nuclear.
John Barber is a freelance journalist.