Opinion: Ontario’s nuclear option is the wrong path to meet green energy targets

The province should focus on cost-efficient wind, solar and hydro expansion, as well as increased interprovincial transmission.

Ontario plans to add natural gas-powered turbines, refurbish old nuclear reactors and develop small modular reactors. Chuck Szmurlo photo via Wikipedia.

This article was published by Policy Options on May 13, 2024.

By Quinn Goranson

Ontario is failing in its strategy to reduce emissions to meet the province’s climate commitment of reducing emissions by 2030 to 30 per cent below 2005 levels (which is already 10 to 15 per cent below the current federal target).

The province’s auditor general released a report in 2021 stating the Ford government’s policies for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were already falling short by 14.2 megatons.

Fast-forward three years and the situation is likely to get worse.

Plans to meet the province’s possible 1.7-per-cent annual increase in electricity demand include the addition of natural gas-powered turbines, refurbishing old nuclear reactors and developing small modular reactors (SMRs).

This presents a dual problem. First, burning natural gas produces CO2, so expanding capacity using new gas turbines will increase emissions. Second, nuclear power generation cannot successfully help meet 2030 targets

Ontario’s nuclear hopes out of step with reality

SMRs are a class of nuclear reactor, built in a factory and shipped to a site, designed to generate up to 300 megawatts (MW) of electrical power per unit. By comparison, larger conventional reactors in Ontario have a capacity of roughly 900 MW.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) states it is “leading the way in the advancement of SMR technology in Canada” and that SMRs are “the future of nuclear power generation.”

This position collides head-on with technological realities.

SMRs are a futuristic technology at best. The only operational SMRs anywhere in the world are in Northeast Russia and in Shidao Bay, China.

Both reactors faced construction delays, primarily due to cost overruns and poor economics., The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has yet to fully approve a single SMR licence.

SMRs cannot be built in time to help meet Ontario’s 2030 emission targets. Worse, by betting on them, OPG has committed to making Ontario’s electricity grid dirtier.

Nuclear power a costly option

In addition to being largely unproven, SMRs will not be cheap. While their absolute cost may be lower than conventional nuclear reactors, their lower electricity output means they become significantly more expensive per megawatt to operate.

Beyond the fact that every single new nuclear project in Ontario’s history has gone over budget, gas and nuclear energy now contribute the most to increasing energy bills for Ontario residents.

A 2018 report from the Canadian SMR roadmap steering committee, a group of provincial and territorial governments and power utilities, estimated the baseline cost of electricity from SMRs would be 16.3 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Comparatively, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency renewable alternatives are less expensive:

  • Onshore wind electricity costs consumers an average of 4.5 cents per kWh;
  • Offshore wind costs an average of 10 cents/kWh;
  • Solar PV farms cost an average of 6.6 cents/kWh;
  • Hydropower costs an average of 5 cents/kWh.

In North America, the only SMR design certified by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission was cancelled due to “lack of interest” once rising costs deterred potential customers. Originally announced in 2015 at the equivalent of $4.1 billion Cdn, estimates rose to $5.6 billion (2018), then $8.4 billion (2020) and finally $12.7 billion (2023).

Time keeps on ticking

New nuclear projects are taking on average of 10 to 15 years to become operational. Ontario’s first SMR designated for the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station is planned for 2028.

Meanwhile, the Ontario government says additional SMRs could come online between 2034 and 2036. In reality, nuclear projects typically exceed time estimates by 64 per cent and given a strong trend of delays for such projects globally, new SMRs are unlikely to come online before 2042, if ever.

So, in addition to the speculative viability of SMRs, likely delays even under the best of circumstances mean this technology is unable to help meet Ontario’s emissions reduction targets.

Radioactive waste another key factor

The “green” label often applied to nuclear energy should be viewed with scepticism. While no fossil fuel is burned to generate nuclear power, the industry produces radioactive waste and is not “renewable.”

In fact, there is evidence to suggest SMRs will produce a greater volume of radioactive waste per unit of electricity generated than existing large reactors.

Radioactive waste remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years and there are no demonstrated solutions to managing this risk. According to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which is owned by Canada’s nuclear power companies, radioactive nuclear waste must be fully isolated from people and the environment for one million years or more.

Committing to new nuclear projects in Ontario as a climate solution is essentially trading one intergenerational threat for another.

The green path toward Ontario’s emissions targets

A report from the David Suzuki Foundation in 2022 found that “reliable, affordable, 100 per cent emissions-free electricity in Canada by 2035 is entirely possible.”

In 2020, the International Energy Agency declared wind and solar the “cheapest sources of new electricity in history.”

In 2018, Ontario cancelled 758 signed contracts for smaller renewable energy projects, many of them in Indigenous communities Only recently, the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) has announced it seeks to procure 5,000 MW of new non-emitting (wind, solar, hydropower or bioenergy) energy.

Nuclear energy plays a key role in meeting Canada’s net-zero goals

Decolonizing energy and the nuclear narrative of small modular reactors

Utility-scale solar costs plummeted by 90 per cent between 2009-21. Wind energy costs declined 72 per cent. This presents an important opportunity given Ontario’s more than 1,500 kilometres of Great Lakes shoreline and abundant sunshine.

The already low cost of hydropower in Ontario through existing infrastructure, combined with the potential for integration with Hydro-Québec, can help Ontario convert its “intermittent wind and solar energy into a firm 24/7 source of baseload electricity,” according to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.

Likewise, offshore wind-generating potential in Atlantic Canada far exceeds energy needs in the region and could be exported to Ontario via existing mainstream high-voltage direct-current transmission lines.

By cancelling SMR development and focusing on cost-efficient wind, solar and hydro expansion, as well as increased interprovincial transmission, Ontario can reclaim leadership when it comes to green energy development now and for future generations.

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