by Marco Chown Oved • published 4 May 2023
After a pause of more than 30 years, Ontario is poised to start building nuclear reactors again in an effort to provide the carbon-free electricity needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Both Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have lauded nuclear power as a climate change solution, one that will help reduce emissions, attract green businesses and provide abundant electricity to enable society to stop burning fossil fuels.
But as more than $1 billion in public money is being committed to a new generation of reactors, critics are calling for a pause and a rethink, saying nuclear power’s cost overruns, construction delays and safety concerns outweigh its benefits as a provider of clean electricity — especially when renewables such as wind and solar are cheaper, quicker to build and have no long-term radioactive legacy.
The last nuclear plant Ontario built was so expensive that it caused the bankruptcy of Ontario Hydro, said Mark Winfield, a professor of environmental and urban change at York University.
“People don’t remember that,” he said. “Now, we’re sleepwalking back down a nuclear path and nobody’s asking the big questions about the costs, viability, risks and alternatives.”
Winfield, who is also co-chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative at York, said the climate crisis has opened up a window of opportunity for nuclear power, aided by the public’s short memory.
“The nuclear industry is engaged in a full-court press, trying to take advantage of the decarbonization push to rehabilitate its reputation,” he said, an assertion supported by records in the lobbyist registry in Ontario.
Building nuclear to reduce emissions is a false solution, he said, because it will burden future generations with waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years.
“It’s climate change for nuclear waste. Are we trading one giant intergenerational problem for another?”
Proponents of nuclear include some climate-conscious groups that say reactors are the only way to build carbon-free electricity fast enough to decarbonize society by 2050 — the timeline set by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Nuclear energy also uses fewer resources and has a smaller footprint than any other type of electricity generation, they say.
Winfield and other critics point to nuclear power’s record of taking longer to build and costing more than anticipated — often by large margins — as the reason why the spread of the technology stalled decades ago.
More than 600 nuclear plants have been built for civilian electricity generation worldwide since the first one opened in Russia in 1954, the majority by the end of the ’80s. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the number of nuclear reactors in operation globally peaked in 2002. There are currently 411 reactors in operation, fewer than there were in 1989.
Nuclear power was never meant to be commercially viable, said Benjamin Sovacool, a professor of earth and environment at Boston University. It was developed in the United States as a way to convince the public that the power of the atom — which had demonstrated its catastrophic destructive potential during the Second World War — could be used for good, he said.
“There was this euphoria around what nuclear power could do,” he said. The only problem? “It was never cost effective.”
Sovacool published an academic paper that analyzed the construction timelines and budgets of more than 400 large-scale electricity projects around the world over the past 80 years. He found, on average, nuclear plants cost more than double their original budgets and took 64 per cent longer to build than projected. Wind and solar, by contrast, had average cost overruns of 7.7 per cent and 1.3 per cent, respectively.
“That’s why the market has not really embraced nuclear power at all. It just can’t compete with modern renewables,” said Sovacool. “Nuclear is stagnating and declining.”
Last month, Germany shut down its last nuclear reactor, fulfilling a promise made after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, and despite an energy crisis that sent electricity prices soaring after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.
In the United States — which has 93 nuclear reactors, the most in any country in the world — more than one-third are unprofitable or scheduled to close, according to a 2018 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Meanwhile, only two new reactors have been brought online in the U.S. since the turn of the century, both of which took more than twice as long and cost more than twice as much as originally projected, according to Edwin Lyman, the report’s author and the organization’s director of nuclear power safety.
In Europe, only a handful of reactors have been built in the past 20 years, most recently in Finland, where a long-delayed plant at Olkiluoto opened in April, 18 years after breaking ground, and 13 years late. Construction ended up costing an estimated 11 billion euros, more than triple the original three-billion-euro estimate, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
One of the only places where enthusiasm exists for new nuclear is China.
Over the past two decades, China has commissioned 50 new reactors, more than half of all new reactors built. In the rest of the world, twice as many reactors have been decommissioned (105) as were built (48). But even China’s passion for nuclear is eclipsed by its penchant for building solar.
Since 2001, China has added 47.5 GW of nuclear power generation to its grid, according to the World Nuclear Industry Report. But in the last decade — half that time — it has also built 13 times more wind and solar (630 GW), according to the International Energy Agency.
Unlike renewables, whose prices have dropped, the cost to build nuclear power plants has risen over time, said M.V. Ramana, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.
This is because every new nuclear accident demonstrates the need for additional security measures, he said. After the meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, safety systems were added to all future plants to prevent similar accidents from occurring.
The cost increases associated with these undercut the case that nuclear power is reliable and inexpensive, Ramana said, prompting the nuclear industry to lowball cost estimates and provide unrealistic construction schedules.
“If politicians and the public were given accurate estimates, they’d say: ’No thank you,’ ” he said. “There is an incentive to lie about this. If you look into the history, you should be very skeptical about promises.”
Canada was an early proponent of nuclear power, with the first experimental nuclear reactor outside the U.S. operating at Chalk River in the 1940s. Canada then developed its own civilian power technology — called CANDU — with prototypes built at Douglas Point, Ont., and Gentilly, Que., in the 1960s. The first large-scale reactor was built in Pickering in 1971, followed by Bruce in 1977, Point Lepreau, N.B., in 1983 and Darlington in 1990.
In Ontario, all three plants — Pickering, Bruce and Darlington — took longer and cost more to build than expected. Darlington, the last one to be completed, ended up costing $14.4 billion — triple the original budget.
Built to meet projections of soaring demand for electricity that didn’t materialize after the recession of the early ’90s, Darlington nuclear power plant bankrupted Ontario Hydro and led to the once-profitable public utility being broken into three.
The promised electricity price reductions also failed to materialize.
Now, three decades later, Ontario gets 53 per cent of its electricity from nuclear, but faces growing demand for noncarbon emitting electricity as industry returns to the province and cars and home heating electrify.
So Queen’s Park is turning to nuclear again.
Midway through $26 billion in refurbishments to extend the production lives of Darlington and Bruce, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) asked the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to prolong its operating licence for Pickering, Canada’s oldest operating reactor.
But that won’t be enough. The Independent Electricity System Operatorsaid new nuclear reactors will be needed to get the province’s electricity supply to net-zero emissions. So, OPG has started the licensing process to build a first-of-its-kind small modular reactor (SMR).
“To electrify life in one generation, Ontario needs a diverse mix of energy sources, including nuclear. There is no credible path to net zero without nuclear,” said OPG spokesperson Neal Kelly. “Construction will be complete on the first SMR at Darlington in 2028; it will produce power for Ontario’s grid by the end of this decade.”
The cost of building the SMR — and any overruns — will be recovered through increases to electricity rates.
“OPG has been a world leader in the nuclear space for decades, and have a demonstrated track record of success on nuclear projects,” Ontario Energy Ministry spokesperson Michael Dodsworth told the Star.
SMRs are supposed to solve the cost overruns and construction delays that plagued larger nuclear projects. They are to be assembled mostly in a factory, where costs can be better controlled, and their smaller size means they will be quicker to construct.
The SMR proposed for Darlington will have a 300 MW capacity. By contrast, each of the four existing reactors at Darlington have a capacity of nearly 900 MW.
But the very logic of going small undercuts the economies of scale that large nuclear reactors relied on, said Lyman. While they may cost a lot, full-scale reactors produce incredible amounts of electricity. Lyman doubts the smaller reactors will end up being much cheaper, but they’ll definitely produce less electricity — and he has concerns they could be less safe.
“In the drive to show these things are going to be cheaper, they’re cutting too many corners,” he said. “There may be a way to make it safe enough, but that’s not the way we’re going.”
The hypothetical consequences of a nuclear accident would be far worse in Ontario, where Darlington and Pickering are located very close to millions of homes, than most other nuclear plants around the world, said Theresa McClenaghan, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
“We have been numbed to the danger,” she said. “The emergency planning zone extends well into Toronto.”
But some climate change advocates say nuclear is the best option for cutting our emissions quickly and that Canada can avoid some of the problems encountered elsewhere.
Chris Keefer, president of Canadians for Nuclear Energy, a grassroots non-profit, said net zero targets have provided the urgency needed to get Canada to return to the golden era of its nuclear program, when 22 reactors were commissioned in 22 years between the early ’70s and the early ’90s.
“Nuclear is the only way to keep gas off the grid,” he said. “We built nuclear very quickly in the past and we can do so again.”
Keefer pointed to the ongoing refurbishments of Darlington and Bruce, saying they’ve kept a highly trained workforce on the job, while also supporting a local nuclear supply chain across the province — both things that were lost during the long building drought in the U.S. and Europe.
“I’m optimistic about nuclear,” he said. “It’s not easy. But new reactors can keep us carbon-free far into the future.”