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Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith speaks at a news conference at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in Pickering, Ont., on Jan. 30.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Mark Winfield is a professor of environmental and urban change at York University and co-chair of the faculty’s Sustainable Energy Initiative. He is also co-editor of Sustainable Energy Transitions in Canada (UBC Press, 2023).

The Ontario government’s announcement last week of its intention to pursue the refurbishment of the Pickering B nuclear power plant on the shore of Lake Ontario between Toronto and Pickering represents a strategic triumph for the provincially owned Ontario Power Generation utility. The project would significantly reinforce the utility’s already dominant position in the province’s electricity system.

How well the decision serves the interests of Ontario residents, taxpayers and electricity ratepayers, and advances the sustainable decarbonization of the province’s electricity system, is another question altogether.

A Pickering B refurbishment had been assessed as uneconomic in 2010 and the plant scheduled to close in 2018. The facility is located in what is now a densely populated urban area where approval of a new plant would be unlikely.

New plans for that refurbishment are part of larger nuclear expansion strategy being pursued by OPG and the province. The plans include the refurbishment of six reactors at the Bruce Nuclear facility (also owned by OPG) and four reactors at the OPG Darlington facility. There are also proposals for four large new reactors totalling 4,800 MW in capacity at Bruce and four new 300 MW reactors at Darlington.

The total costs of these plans are unknown at this point, but an overall estimate in excess of $100-billion ($13-billion Darlington refurbishment; $25-billion Bruce refurbishment; $15-billion Pickering B refurbishment; $50-billion for Bruce new build; Darlington new build $10-billion or more) would not be unrealistic. Even that figure would assume that things go according to plan, which they rarely do with nuclear construction and refurbishment projects. This could constitute the largest nuclear construction program in the Americas or Europe.

Under the current legislative and policy regime for electricity in Ontario, none of these plans are subject to any external review or regulatory oversight in terms of costs, economic and environmental rationality, or availability of lower-cost and lower-risk pathways for meeting the province’s electricity needs and decarbonizing its electricity system. Rather, the system now runs entirely on the basis of ministerial directives that agencies in the sector – including the putative regulator, the Ontario Energy Board – are mandated to implement.

The government has justified its plans on the expectation of dramatic growth in electricity demand over the next few decades. This would be the result of population and economic growth, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, the electrification of space heating – principally via heat pumps – and expectations of industrial development in areas like the hydrogen economy.

There are serious grounds on which to question these projections. Growth in electricity demand in the province has been virtually flat these past two decades despite sustained population and economic growth. The province has no plans of its own for the electrification of transportation or space heating. In fact, it is currently proposing legislation to facilitate the expansion of natural gas service to new housing developments. Many of the anticipated industrial developments, particularly around things like hydrogen, are speculative at best.

Even as electricity use expands as a result of decarbonization efforts, it is far from clear that those needs will, or need to, translate into demand that can only be served by large centralized, capital-intensive, high-risk and inflexible generating assets like nuclear power plants.

Ontario’s nuclear plans have emerged at a time of converging and mutually reinforcing technological revolutions in the areas of energy efficiency and productivity, demand management and response, renewable energy and energy storage, distributed energy resources, and electricity grid management and integration (i.e. smart grids).

These developments are offering the potential for lower-cost, lower-risk, faster and more flexible means of facilitating electrification and decarbonization than centralized systems can deliver. Ontario is effectively marginalizing the role of these developments, which are being aggressively pursued by other jurisdictions in North America and around the world. Instead, it is looking decades into the past in terms of its approach to energy supply and planning.

While nuclear energy may offer a low-carbon energy source, it fails in virtually every other dimension of sustainability: costs; the production of high-volume, toxic and radioactive waste streams that require management on timescales of hundreds, if not thousands, of millennia; and security, catastrophic accident and weapons proliferation risks that simply do not exist in relation to other energy technologies.

These considerations mean that nuclear projects need to be options of last resort in efforts to decarbonize energy systems. This is precisely the opposite of the approach now being taken by Ontario. These are choices that Ontarians and Canadians may come to regret for decades, if not centuries, if they are not subject to some form of serious external review before it is too late to reconsider.

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