The Ontario government is going on a nuclear buying spree but won’t say how much it’s going to spend.
Only months after breaking ground on one of the world’s first small nuclear reactors, the province this week made back-to-back announcements of massive expansions at two nuclear plants, promising more than six gigawatts of new generation — enough to power six million homes by the mid-2030s.
Taken together, the three new small modular reactors (SMRs) at Darlington, announced Friday, and the new full size reactors at Bruce announced earlier in the week, would add nearly 50 per cent more nuclear power to the electricity grid than is currently online.
At both announcements, Energy Minister Todd Smith declined to say how much these new nuclear reactors would cost.
Critics at Queen’s Park say writing blank cheques for nuclear power, which has a long history of cost-overruns, isn’t consistent with the government’s promise to keep electricity rates down.
“People of this province want to know what will be the total cost of this project. More importantly, what will be the cost of the power generated from these reactors? Who is on the hook for any budget overruns?” said NDP MPP Peter Tabuns.
For 14 years, Ontario electricity customers paid a debt retirement surcharge on their power bills to pay off the nearly $20 billion in stranded construction debt from the Darlington nuclear plant, the last nuclear project built in the province, which went wildly over budget and led to Ontario Hydro becoming insolvent.
SMRs, which are supposed to be cheaper and quicker to build than a full-sized nuclear plant, are still a relatively untested technology, and haven’t been put into commercial operation anywhere in the world.
Throughout their history, nuclear plants have suffered from increasing construction delays and cost overruns, while renewable energy, like wind and solar, has dropped in price precipitously. This has caused many to question why Premier Doug Ford is investing in more expensive natural gas plants and nuclear power.
“Ontario is facing an energy crunch. Luckily, the solutions are right in front of us — cheap, safe, clean renewables like hydro, wind and solar that can be deployed quickly,” said Green Party leader Mike Schreiner.
Last year, the International Energy Agency said the cost of new solar energy projects had fallen so far, solar panels are now the cheapest form of energy in history. This has led to a global renewable building spree, where China is slated to install more solar this year than all the panels that have ever been installed in the United States.
“Global investors are flocking to renewables because they are the cheapest, cleanest source of electricity generation. But instead of taking note, the Ford government is moving in the opposite direction — hurting consumers, the economy and the climate in the process,” Schreiner said.
Smith said building four SMRs together at Darlington would take a “fleet approach” to keep costs down and build up local expertise.
“Sharing common infrastructure between units is going to help us reduce costs. And building four units provides more opportunities for Ontario companies to make the investments to expand their operations to serve the growing SMR market.”
OPG president and CEO Ken Hartwick said Ontario’s commitment to build four first-of-its-kind nuclear technology has “really signalled the growth momentum that nuclear has for the future of the grid in Ontario.”
“In the long run, developing this made-in-Ontario expertise will mean we can export our know-how to other jurisdictions across Canada and around the world.”
After two decades in which more nuclear plants were shut down than were built, the technology has attracted renewed interest as a climate change solution, since it can provide copious amounts of carbon-free power.
However, critics point out that the plants’ construction and the mining of uranium for fuel are both carbon-intensive. In addition, no long-term storage solution has been developed to deal with the radioactive waste left behind.
After getting elected in 2018, Ford cancelled more than 700 renewable energy projects at a cost of $231 million, and the province, which was once the Canadian leader in building wind and solar, hasn’t built any since.
Last year, Alberta added 1.4 gigawatts of the 1.8 gigawatts of renewable energy built in Canada, according to the Canadian Renewable Energy Association. Ontario added none.
Earlier this year, Ontario announced two gas plant expansions and upgrades at four others in an effort to meet a short-term energy shortage as demand has begun to rise for the first time since 2005.
New industrial investments by electric vehicle and battery manufacturers, coupled with increasing demand from people as they switch to EVs and electric heat pumps, means Ontario will need to more than double the amount of electricity it generates by 2050, according to the Independent Electricity System Operator.
And carbon-free electricity will be needed to comply with the federal government’s commitment to a net-zero electrical grid from coast-to-coast by 2035.
Subject to the regulatory approvals, the additional three SMRs are scheduled to come online between 2034 and 2036. Construction on the first one is set to be complete by 2028.