Costs of expanding nuclear power plants could ultimately run into the hundreds of billions of dollars
Demand for electricity across Canada is forecast to double in the next 25 years, and all the signs from Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government indicate that nuclear energy will supply the biggest portion of the province’s additional power needs.
Key factors driving that demand include the auto sector’s looming transition to electric vehicles and the push for industries to reduce their carbon emissions.
That creates the potential for Ontario to embark on what would be Canada’s biggest-ever expansion of nuclear power, a multi-decade construction project with costs that could ultimately run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Among the recent moves by the Ford government:
- The province announced it wants to nearly double production at Bruce Power, already the largest nuclear generating station in the world.
- The province unveiled plans to add three more small modular reactors (SMRs) to the one already in the works at Darlington, which would together provide enough electricity to power 1.2 million homes.
- Ontario Power Generation (OPG) submitted a feasibility study to the energy minister on refurbishing Pickering, the oldest operating nuclear power plant in Canada.
There’s no way Ontario can ramp up electricity production sufficiently without expanding nuclear production, says Energy Minister Todd Smith.
“Given the fact that we want to make sure that we’re building emissions-free sources of electricity, really the best way to do that is base-load power through nuclear,” said Smith in an interview with CBC News.
“We’ve proven that it’s reliable 365 days a year, seven days a week and 24 hours a day,” said Smith. “That’s why we’re moving forward rather aggressively on SMRs and potentially new large nuclear as well.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on side too. “We’re going to have to be doing much more nuclear,” he said in April while speaking about the need for clean electricity to power Canada’s growing industrial production.
Trudeau’s government is also providing investment tax credits of 15 per cent on the construction of emissions-free electricity systems, including nuclear power.
Nuclear plants currently supply slightly more than half of Ontario’s electricity needs. Hydro dams provide one-quarter of the supply, with gas-fired power plants and wind farms combining for all but a fraction of the remainder.
The province has made its case for expanding nuclear power in a series of reports over recent months.
In a report issued last December, Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) examined how to meet demand while ensuring the province’s grid is emissions-free by 2050.
It envisions the construction of 17,800 megawatts of new nuclear power, roughly equivalent to building another Bruce nuclear plant, two more Darlingtons and an additional Pickering.
$400B to overhaul electricity system
In July, Smith released a plan called Powering Ontario’s Growth that sets out in general terms how the government foresees meeting the anticipated rise in demand for electricity.
Nuclear power “remains critical in Ontario’s path to electrification and meeting its clean energy goals,” says the document.
“We’re moving forward with nuclear because it’s sustainable, it’s reliable and it’s affordable,” said Smith in his interview. “You can count on nuclear playing a large role in Ontario’s electricity supply for decades to come.”
What’s not clear yet is how much the nuclear expansion will cost.
The IESO estimates that Ontario will need to spend some $400 billion by 2050 to meet what it forecasts to be future electricity needs while making the grid carbon-neutral. This would involve building about 60,000 megawatts of total capacity, including by building new power plants and replacing existing ones as they reach the end of their life.
Exactly how much of that capacity — and that price tag — would be nuclear power is still to be determined.
‘Stuck with it a century from now’
The government’s “overwhelming focus” on nuclear-powered electricity would take Ontario down “an extraordinarily high-cost and high-risk pathway,” says Mark Winfield, a professor and co-chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative at York University.
“I don’t think we’re short of alternatives (to nuclear) here,” said Winfield in an interview. “We’ve got actually quite a remarkable menu of alternatives. The problem is the government’s absolute refusal to consider them seriously.
Winfield says international experts in electricity planning find it “bizarre” that Ontario’s government can decide on $400 billion worth of projects without seriously examining the alternatives, at a time when clean electricity technology is advancing rapidly.
“You make a decision now (to build new nuclear plants), you’re going to be stuck with it a century from now,” he said. “So there’s all kinds of questions about, would you really want to lock yourself in in that way?”
The government is touting nuclear in particular as a source of electricity that is virtually free from greenhouse gas emissions, while questions about the disposal of nuclear waste take a back seat.
Ontario’s relatively clean electricity system (90 per cent generated by non-fossil fuel sources) is getting credit for the province’s recent success in attracting two big international automakers — Volkswagen and Stellantis — to manufacture electric vehicles and EV batteries.
Next decision: Pickering refurbishment
“They’re interested in Ontario because we are an ultra-low-carbon power jurisdiction and we have reliable, affordable electricity, and that’s all underpinned by nuclear,” said Chris Keefer, president of the group Canadians for Nuclear Energy.
Keefer, an emergency room physician in Toronto, says Ontario’s nuclear plants were essential to the previous Liberal government’s achievement of scrapping coal-fired electricity, and says he saw the health benefits of cleaner air in his practice.
“We made a very good investment with nuclear,” said Keefer. “It’s our second-cheapest source of electricity (next to hydro). And no, I don’t see a way towards net-zero without more nuclear here in Ontario.”
The likely next step in Ontario’s nuclear future is a decision on refurbishing four of Pickering’s nuclear reactor units, which first came into service in the early 1980s.
The feasibility study submitted to Smith is basically the business case for whether a refurbishment is technically and economically viable, says Aida Cipolla, chief financial officer for OPG.
“It’s looking at the fundamentals of each of the units, and looking at the actual technology, the equipment and what do we need to do to continue to have it for 30-plus years of generation,” Cipolla said in an interview at the Pickering plant.
OPG is midway through the $12.8-billion refurbishment of four reactors at Darlington, recently bringing its second reactor back into service more than five months ahead of schedule. Cipolla said the expertise gained in the Darlington project can be applied to Pickering.
“We’re in what we would call a nuclear renaissance right now, whereas for decades there has been talk about potentially closing plants,” she said.
If the government decides to refurbish Pickering, the proposal would have to go to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for approval.