In December, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) announced it will work with GE Hitachi to develop a new 300MW nuclear power reactor at the provincially owned utility’s Darlington site. The news was presented as an endorsement of a renewed role for nuclear energy in the fight against climate change, particularly the industry’s move toward small modular reactors (SMRs). In reality, the announcement raises far more questions than it answers, and its actual meaning is far from clear.

At a fundamental level, vital details were missing, not the least of which were potential costs. The last proposal for new power reactors in Canada, in 2009 and also at Darlington, came in at between $24 billion and $26 billion for two units — so hopelessly uneconomic that the province quickly abandoned the notion. Recent attempts to build new reactors in the United States and Europe have met with similar encounters with economic reality. The SMR track record to date indicates that the cost issue is far from resolved.

The BWRX-300 reactor at the centre of the initiative exists only as a design – what has been termed a “PowerPoint” reactor – of which no examples have actually been constructed, tested or operated. This makes reliable estimates of costs and performance virtually impossible. It also makes wildly optimistic the notion suggested by OPG that the unit – the design of which would be different from anything Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission has seen before – could be operational in little more than six years.

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More widely, the announcement begs questions about how decisions around Ontario’s electricity system are being made. As it currently stands, the province has no planning or regulatory framework around the future direction of its electricity system, or more broadly how it is going to address climate change. OPG seems to be taking advantage of the resulting vacuum to make a back-door commitment to an expanded nuclear-based pathway, enlarging its own role in the process.

The annual planning report of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (the IESO), also released in December, makes it clear that the province is on track to see a 375-per-cent growth in its electricity-related emissions by 2030 relative to 2017 (Section 7.3 of the report, Figure 42). (In 2017, Ontario’s electricity CO2 emissions were two megatonnes, the Canada Energy Regulator says.) The growth in emissions will be the result of natural gas-fired power plants being ramped up to replace nuclear facilities that are facing retirement or being taken out of service for refurbishment.

By 2040, electricity-related greenhouse gas emissions are projected to be 600 per cent above 2017 levels, based on the IESO report and Canada Energy Regulator stats. At that level, gas-fired generation would account for a quarter of the province’s electricity generation. That would be roughly the same portion as coal-fired generation at its peak, before its phaseout in 2013.

Alternatives to a massive increase in gas-fired production and building new nuclear plants need to be comparatively assessed. These range from renewed efforts on energy efficiency (largely abandoned by the Ford government in 2019), renewable energy sources combined with energy storage, and an enhanced relationship with Quebec.

A conversation with Ontario’s next-door neighbour could be particularly timely because Hydro-Quebec has recently run into increasing difficulty expanding its hydroelectricity exports to the United States. High-voltage interprovincial connections are being identified as critical components for any cost-effective strategy to reduce emissions and meet future increases in electricity demand in Canada.

At the national level, there is growing recognition that the achievement of overall net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 could require a doubling or tripling of Canada’s electricity output. Moreover, the federal government has announced its intention to aim for a net-zero electricity system by 2035. These directions invite questions about what should qualify as “clean” or “non-emitting” electricity, and whether nuclear energy meets those tests.

At first glance, nuclear does offer some potential advantages, notably large energy outputs with relatively low greenhouse gas emissions. But nuclear, which presents itself as “clean” on the basis of emissions at the point of generation, needs to be looked at from a life-cycle perspective, considering impacts and risks beyond greenhouse gas emissions. Key risks associated with this energy technology, such as the production of radioactive wastes and potential high-impact accidents, underscore the need to carefully weigh potential trade-offs in choosing pathways to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

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Examined from these viewpoints, nuclear scores poorly and is difficult to view as either “clean” or “non-emitting.” The technology is associated with the generation of large volumes of exceptionally hazardous and difficult-to-manage wastes. These range from tailings from uranium mining operations, to spent reactor fuel bundles and radioactive components from decommissioned or refurbished reactors. All will require management on timescales measured in hundreds of thousands of years, effectively transferring risks and costs onto generations far into the future – a violation of a core sustainability principle. Emissions of hazardous, radioactive and conventional pollutants occur throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly its upstream uranium mining, refining and processing stages. The technology brings accident, security and weapons proliferation risks that simply don’t exist with other energy technologies.

The precise nature of the wastes generated by the various designs of small modular reactors being promoted by the industry, including BWRX-300, remains unknown. Major concerns have been raised about enhanced weapons proliferation risks around fuel reprocessing proposals associated with some SMR designs.

The technology has always been uneconomic, dependent on government for its developmental costs and to guarantee returns on private investment. Legislative limitations on accident liabilities, and governmental assumptions of ultimate liability for waste management and decommissioning costs have been essential to its appearance of viability. This continues to be the case, even in the context of aggressive carbon pricing regimes, as the costs of competing technologies, specifically renewables and storage, continue to fall.

Ultimately, the announcement highlights the need, at the federal and provincial levels, for governance structures that are able to identify and assess potential pathways toward net-zero emissions. These processes must be able to consider and evaluate trade-offs associated with various options in ways that are open, evidence-based, and that build legitimacy and public acceptance. Such structures have yet to emerge, but will be critical to ensuring decisions made by current and future governments around decarbonization avoid undesirable trade-offs and advance sustainability for generations to come.

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Mark Winfield
Mark Winfield is a professor of environmental and urban change at York University, and co-chair of the faculty’s Sustainable Energy Initiative.
Colleen Kaiser
Dr. Colleen Kaiser is the program director for governance and innovation policy at the Smart Prosperity Institute and a course director at York University. Her research focuses on how Canadian governments can improve decision-making to accelerate and democratize decarbonization.

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