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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Nukes for North America

Air Date: Week of

Darlington Station, in southern Ontario is the potential site for new nuclear reactors. (Photo courtesy of: Ontario Power Generation, Inc.)

Ontario, Canada plans to build two new nuclear reactors in the province to meet increasing demand for electricity.. At the same time, the government has delayed closing its existing coal plants as promised. Host Steve Curwood talks with Bob Carty, of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, about the controversial plan.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Nuclear power is set to make a major comeback in North America. The Bush administration recently pushed a plan through Congress that grants as much as 15 billion dollars in federal aid, to jumpstart nuclear power plant construction, in the United States. And now in Canada the provincial government of Ontario has just announced it will spend 40 billion dollars to upgrade old atomic power stations and build some new ones.

Joining me from Ottawa is Bob Carty. He’s a senior journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Hi Bob.

CARTY: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, Canada eventually stopped building nuclear power plants in the 90s after building a lot of them in the 60s. Why have you guys changed your minds?

CARTY: Well, a number of things happened since about 93, when the last power plant went up. It had huge cost overruns, you know, we’re still paying on our electricity bills for the debt of 30 billion dollars for that plant. So yes, as you say, nuclear was out of favor, but since then these things have happened: the economy boomed, demand for electricity increased, the population is growing.

At the same time, a previous conservative government cut conservation, so there were no gains happening there. So the current situation is you have a reliance upon nuclear, hydro and coal. And that’s grown, actually, in recent years because there’s been so many breakdowns at the CANDU nuclear reactors we have here – bursting pipes, radiation leaks and so on. Eight reactors had to be closed down to be repaired; four of them are still closed down.

And that meant generating more and more electricity with coal, which is very polluting, contributes about 25 percent of Ontario’s entire greenhouse gases, and doctors say actually perhaps kills about 1,500 people a year because of respiratory problems. So something had to be done to solve all those problems, and to keep the lights on. I don’t think any of this, though, you don’t see a mention, Steve, in any of the documentation of the government about this being motivated in any sense by Kyoto.

CURWOOD: So explain to me this Ontario plan financially. How much is the government going to spend on nuclear and how much on renewables and conservation?

CARTY: The government says this is a multi-year, 60 U.S. billion plan. Of that, a good chunk, 40 billion dollars, is going to build two new nuclear facilities and refurbish or repair four existing ones. And then they have another 20 billion dollars or so to invest in conservation, to develop more hydroelectricity, to stimulate solar, wind, biomass electricity production. It’s called a balanced plan by the minister of energy, Dwight Duncan, and here’s a little tape from him:

Darlington Station, in southern Ontario is the potential site for new nuclear reactors. (Photo courtesy of: Ontario Power Generation, Inc.)

DUNCAN: We’re looking at probably two new reactors, and that is a modest plan on the nuclear side but it’s a robust plan on renewables, on conservation, and on ensuring reliability as we move forward. Listen, if I had my druthers it’d be 100 percent hydroelectric. Nuclear power has an important role to play; we want to balance that with other sources of electricity. We believe that this plan will provide Ontario with a stable, reliable, affordable, competitive electricity system, moving forward.

CURWOOD: Now he seems to be holding his nose a bit there on the nuclear power, and likes hydro, so why doesn’t he just go that way?

CARTY: Well, it’s complicated. There’s only a certain amount of hydro resources left in Ontario. We have a long tradition in hydro-generation. The big rivers in the south – think of the St. Lawrence, you think of Niagara – they’re all dammed. There are rivers in the far north of Ontario, but this is a big province and you lose a lot of power just in transmission from the north to the south.
But one thing that’s really ironic is there could be a lot of hydro-generation on a sort of micro scale, you know, very small rivers. There could also be a reversal of a previous decision; earlier governments, conservative governments, concentrating so much on nuclear, shut down small river or medium size river dams. They took the generators out; too costly, they said, to maintain them. So critics say that, you know, you could get quite a bit of power by putting turbines back in those existing rivers.

CURWOOD: Now, how has the environmental community responded to this announcement?

CARTY: Well they say, first of all, that Ontario’s commitment to shutting down the coal generation of electricity is a bit in doubt now. Originally it was going to be shut down next year; now it’s put off at least two years, and who knows when there’ll be new power in hand. So they’re a bit concerned about that issue. But in terms of turning nuclear, the environmentalists say that all of Ontario’s future needs could in fact be met by conservation and alternative generation. They say, look, California’s done it. They’ve in conservation saved as much electricity as nuclear plants of Ontario generate.

Here’s Keith Stewart, Steve. Keith Stewart runs the climate change campaign at the World Wildlife Federation of Canada.

STEWART: This is about a 20 percent growth in nuclear power from what we have right now on line, and we actually are seeing that consumption will continue to grow, so it’s not a conservation plan. A conservation plan means you use less, not you use more, and an effective nuclear strategy right now would be to phase out what we have as they come to the end of their life because it’s a technology that has gotten us into the problem we’re in right now. So you shouldn’t be looking at it as a way to dig yourself out.

CURWOOD: Now Bob, with this expansion of nuclear, how’s Canada going to handle the nuclear waste?

CARTY: Well, we have about 30,000 tons of highly radioactive waste built up since the 60’s, Steve, and no disposal plan at all. In fact, a sort of satirical songwriter here says it’s like putting up an outhouse without digging a hole.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. But really, Bob, where is the waste right now then?

CARTY: It’s just sitting on site. It’s at the nuclear plants. It’s either in containers or sitting in heavy water tanks that are on the facility there, just waiting for a plan. There’ve been a lot of studies. They’ve dug into the Precambrian Shield rock of Ontario and Manitoba, they’ve looked at different technologies, but they haven’t made the investment, they haven’t made the decision, they’ve put it off I guess for future generations to pay the cost.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty’s a senior journalist with the national radio network of Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thanks so much, Bob.

CARTY: You’re welcome, Steve.



Ontario Ministry of Energy

Ontario Office of the Premier


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