Here are five words you almost never hear in the business of nuclear power: on time and on budget.
The rare words can be said at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, near Toronto, which is undergoing a $12.8-billion refurbishment. The station’s four reactors started pumping out power in the early 1990s and generate about a fifth of the province’s electricity. During its construction, Darlington also pumped out billions of dollars in debt, some of it still on the province’s books decades later.
But these days, in a refurbishment to extend the station’s operations by 30 years, the typical capital cost overruns and long delays have been avoided, with about half the overhaul complete.
The result at Darlington is important, as the Doug Ford government makes a major commitment to a new generation of nuclear power.
Costs will be key as societies rapidly add a lot more electrical power from sources other than fossil fuels. Canada’s goal, like the United States, is to cut greenhouse gas emissions from electricity to zero by 2035, a milestone on the road to economywide net zero emissions. The goal is daunting: building power infrastructure on a scale and pace never seen before.
But the urgency this summer to slow the whipsaws of climate heating is obvious: the worst-ever wildfires in Canada; brutal heat in the U.S., Europe, China; off-the-chart ocean temperatures.
Amid the urgency to clean up power grids and add capacity to fuel sectors like transportation, Ontario is betting big on nuclear. The province in early July announced a large expansion at Bruce Power, where reactors are also being refurbished, and three more small modular reactors at Darlington, where work on the first small reactor has begun.
Staying on time and on budget during a complicated refurbishment at Darlington is an accomplishment. But the task ahead is more difficult. Nuclear projects reliably go way over budget and fall far behind schedule. The plan at Bruce is to almost double capacity. The smaller reactors, meanwhile, are new technology. The risks for both are high. And Ontario’s experience building the smaller reactors will be closely watched in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which both want to build the same but have zero nuclear experience.
Ontario this month also said it would look at renewable power, including wind, by 2026. That’s a positive, given Mr. Ford in 2018 tore up more than $200-million of wind and solar power contracts.
But Mr. Ford appears more interested in nuclear than renewables. That itself poses a risk. This space supports nuclear power but as we argued this month, governments must reach for “every available tool to decarbonize electricity.”
All sources of clean power are needed. The Canada Energy Regulator forecasts that while Ontario will likely need to double the amount of nuclear power, it will be wind that leads the way – producing upward of half of the province’s power in 2050. Nuclear would provide a third. The CER cited wind’s “low capital and operating costs.”
There’s a danger the choices become ideological. In Texas, where solar has surged in the state’s open power system, right-wing lawmakers are trying to favour fossil fuels. Alberta also has an open power system and a spree of private money has made the province Canada’s solar and wind capital. Yet the United Conservative Party government doesn’t even mention the words wind or solar in new mandate letters to its energy and utilities ministers.
Ontario’s renewed interest in renewables is still somewhat mixed. In a new report, the province cited the recent cost of solar at a lofty 50.2 cents per kilowatt hour. That figure reflects past investments when the technology was new. Current solar projects in Alberta are coming online at about 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Ontario’s aiming at about 12.5 cents for the new smaller nuclear reactors.
Low costs and high reliability need to underpin the power grid of the future, as they do today.
And part of that depends on not favouring one source of power over another.
Nuclear is an important part of the puzzle. But the clear cost risks must be recognized. The refurbishment at Darlington is good news and, with the need to add a lot more power to the grid, it shows it is possible to invest in nuclear without stumbling into the pitfalls of the past.