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Workers return to the plant after a news conference at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in Pickering, Ont., on Jan. 30.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government has authorized Ontario Power Generation to begin refurbishing reactors at Canada’s oldest nuclear power plant, located in Pickering.

Energy Minister Todd Smith granted OPG an initial budget of $2-billion to begin ordering long-lead-time components and commence engineering and design work for the project, which is expected to result in four reactors returning to service by the mid-2030s. He said that early work must be completed before a cost estimate can be made public.

“It would be irresponsible at this point in time to put a number out there,” Mr. Smith told reporters at the facility Tuesday. “We’re now seeing electricity demand rise in Ontario for the first time in 18 years, which requires us to build this out.”

Refurbishment involves replacing major reactor components and other equipment at the facility, with the aim of extending its life for 30 years. This overhaul will include only the four Pickering “B” reactors that entered service in the mid-1980s. The two older Pickering “A” reactors still in service are to shut down permanently this year and another two were laid up decades ago.

Pickering B’s capacity is more than 2,000 megawatts. In its assessment of alternatives supplied to the government, the Independent Electricity System Operator, which operates Ontario’s electricity grid, examined building new nuclear reactors, and also building wind farms combined with battery storage.

The IESO concluded Ontario would need to build as much as 18,000 MW of wind capacity – more than three times the current amount installed in the province – to replace Pickering B’s output.

“What they found was, this by far made the most sense,” Mr. Smith said of the refurbishment.

The IESO said it selected that mix of wind and storage based on the low “capacity factor” of wind turbines, meaning the amount of electricity a facility is expected to produce given factors such as the weather and how much maintenance is required. (A reactor typically generates electricity far more consistently and predictably than a wind turbine.)

“This was the most cost-optimal combination of wind and storage, as to build less wind would require more storage, at a net higher cost,” spokesperson Andrew Dow wrote in an e-mail.

But Mark Winfield, a professor at York University who specializes in energy policy, said the IESO’s estimate of 18,000 MW of wind to replace Pickering B seemed too high.

“The short answer would be no – it’s not a valid comparison,” he wrote.

Clean Energy Canada, a climate and energy think tank, praised the government for favouring nuclear power over “polluting” natural gas power. (The IESO purchased natural gas-fired generation in recent procurements.)

“New natural gas would be a last resort,” said Rachel Doran, vice-president of policy and strategy. “And many commentators, including the Canada Energy Regulator and the International Energy Agency, see a role for nuclear in a long-term net-zero energy mix.

“But nuclear’s only one tool in the toolbox, and we’ve seen globally that renewables and storage are poised to play an increasing role.”

Chris Keefer, president of advocacy group Canadians for Nuclear Energy, began lobbying for the refurbishment four years ago, when the possibility was barely discussed. He said labour unions’ growing influence with the provincial government, Ontario’s growing need for electricity and OPG’s success during the continuing refurbishment of its Darlington station in Clarington, Ont., all contributed to the government’s decision to extend the station’s life.

“Despite the COVID pandemic and supply chain issues, they delivered the last unit at Darlington six months ahead of schedule,” Mr. Keefer said. “That’s unheard of in any megaproject.”

The project will require approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. OPG chief executive officer Ken Hartwick said he’s confident his company would obtain it. He noted that Ontario’s nuclear industry has gained considerable experience through refurbishing Darlington and the eight-reactor Bruce station in Tiverton.

“Over the last 10 years, we have learned a lot about what it takes to refurbish a nuclear power station the right way,” he said. “We have a robust nuclear supply chain that is already tooled up and rolling.”

The NDP said it was seeking the release of OPG’s feasibility study for the project, which the government has declined to release to The Globe and Mail under the province’s freedom of information legislation.

“The Conservatives must be fully transparent and release the feasibility study and financials for this project,” Peter Tabuns, the party’s energy critic, said in a written statement. “We can’t assess this project without these details.”

Ontario last considered refurbishing Pickering B about 15 years ago, but decided against doing so. An OPG briefing from 2010, obtained by the anti-nuclear organization Greenpeace Canada through the province’s freedom of information legislation and provided to The Globe, estimated the cost of refurbishment back then at “approximately $10.7 billion, or $2 billion per unit plus a contingency.”

The cost of the electricity produced by the refurbished unit would have been 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, as compared with eight cents per kilowatt-hour for refurbished Darlington reactors.

“There exists high potential for discovery of defects which could make refurbishment unfeasible,” the document added.

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