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LETTER: With nuclear power plants approaching end of life, what's next in Ontario?

'Two decades is just enough time for major new electricity generation projects to go through the planning and permitting process, get built, and come on line,' says reader
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Recently, Quebec Premier François Legault announced that hydrocarbon-fuelled private cars (gasoline, diesel or natural gas) would no longer be sold in the province after 2035.

In other words, in just 15 years all new cars sold in Quebec would have to be either battery-electric or hydrogen-powered.

Legault would not have made such an announcement if he did not also believe that Quebec’s capacity for generating electricity could be expanded to support such a move.

When Hydro Quebec’s grand James Bay hydroelectricity project was built, many of the dams were constructed with space to accept more turbine units than are now installed.

In other words, these dams spill a great deal of water which could instead flow through a turbine to generate power.

Taken as a whole, James Bay is one of the world’s largest power generation projects. Its capacity is 15,527 megawatts, the equivalent of 16 nuclear power plants.

In 1971, when the project began, the Canadian government tried to persuade Quebec to choose nuclear power instead.

With hindsight, Quebec was wise to choose hydroelectricity. Ontario, which did not have similar hydroelectric resources, built

Unfortunately, we found nuclear to be a costly method of producing electricity; expensive enough that much of the debt incurred to build Ontario’s nuclear “fleet” still remains on the province’s books a half-century on. We never managed to pay it off.

The James Bay project released mercury (from drowned vegetation), making some fish and animals living in the area unsuitable
for human consumption. Northern pike flesh now has seven times the mercury it had before the project was built. A top aquatic predator, its numbers are double those of its prey fish.

Keep in mind that abandoning the project would not make the mercury disappear. And its carbon emission-reducing benefits more than balances its harms.

This brings us to Ontario’s government and its apparent inability to consider more than one topic at a time. Today, the matter of concern is COVID-19. Admittedly, the pandemic is hitting Ontario hard and it is indeed important. However, there are other major problems facing the province, not least of which are inadequate long-term care facilities and climate change.

Inevitably, Ontario will be forced into a more electricity-dependent future. The province has committed to meeting carbon-emission standards in the near future, but to date has not taken steps towards this goal. Canada as a whole is also committed to lower carbon emissions.

At the same time as electric cars are coming to the market in greater numbers and at prices ever closer to their gasoline-powered equivalents, our fleet of nuclear power plants is coming to the end of its design life. Over the coming two decades, most of our nuclear fleet will begin to wink out.

We know that we cannot replace them with new nuclear units; they are simply too costly. The last Liberal government called for tenders to build nuclear plants, but insisted the bidders had to be responsible for cost over-runs. As a result, two of the three potential builders dropped out. The third offered to build, but refused to accept responsibility for cost escalation. 

The nuclear plan was quietly dropped.

Two decades is just enough time for major new electricity generation projects to go through the planning and permitting process, get built, and come on line.

If we do not begin planning seriously now, gas-fired turbines are the default. These can be built and installed quickly, but of course, they will make it impossible for Ontario to meet even the weak carbon emission targets the Conservative government has set.

In a future with carbon pricing, their power is likely to prove very costly. In fact, on Nov. 19, 2020, Ontario’s Auditor General reported that the government failed to take any action towards their climate goals. In fact, they even reversed some plans for greenhouse gas reduction legislated by the previous Liberal government.

What could be done? The first step is to realize that Ontario cannot generate enough renewable, carbon-free electricity to replace our current nuclear output within our own borders. (It is worth saying that nuclear power is not renewable.) Fortunately, our neighbouring provinces — Manitoba and Quebec — have the potential to generate considerably more than they currently use.

Many of Quebec’s already completed dams have space in their turbine halls for more units. Quebec could “drop in” about 13,000 MW of generation. This is roughly equal to Ontario’s nuclear capacity, and not all of our nuclear units are running at any one time.

Quebec has also surveyed other potential hydroelectric sites, both to the south and to the north of the James Bay project. More hydroelectric power could be exploited in northeast Quebec.

Our western neighbour, Manitoba, has a number of sites with hydroelectric generation potential on the Nelson River near major existing power stations. There is also untapped potential hydroelectric power available to the southeast of Lake Winnipeg, even closer to Ontario.

Hydroelectricity is not free of environmental issues. These include the leaching of heavy metals from drowned biomass (Quebec’s dams released enough mercury to render some of its fish unfit for human consumption), gradual release of CO2 and methane from rotting biomass.

The change in fresh water flowing into James Bay have affected local climate, including local ice formation. This has forced some Indigenous residents out of their traditional hunting territory. In the case of Quebec, these harms occurred decades ago and will not change if more power is extracted from existing installations.

In Manitoba, agreements will have to be forged with residents whose property will be affected by exploiting new hydroelectric resources. Keep in mind that, if monetary compensation is paid, it will benefit the economy. These people will have more to spend, and will make a larger contribution to tax revenue.

It’s not just Ontario. Alberta also relies heavily on coal-fired electricity and could replace that with hydroelectric power from neighbouring British Columbia. Alberta is also a good place for wind power.

Although the wind doesn’t blow continuously, expanding wind generation would reduce the amount of electricity Alberta needs to purchase from B.C. Since hydro power can be ramped up very rapidly, it would also reduce or even eliminate the need for gas-fired generation to meet demand peaks. Of course, the same applies to Ontario.

We are a country blessed with a great deal of hydroelectric potential. Inexpensive, carbon-free electricity generation is within our grasp. All it needs is vision and leadership.

Peter Bursztyn