Nuclear refurbishment takes a long time — it is an incredibly complex and hazardous process. Referring to these projects as rebuilds instead of refurbishments would be more accurate, as the reconstruction of the Darlington and Bruce nuclear stations will take nearly as much time as building the reactors from scratch (eight years to refurbish compared to about 10 years for a new reactor). But once you’ve started, you are committed to the costs. You can’t half-build a reactor.
Nuclear refurbishment is also expensive. Ontario Power Generation has already awarded $1 billion worth of contracts just for pre-construction work on the Darlington project. According to OPG, this work must be completed before the project timeline and costs can be determined. Unfortunately, by the time that happens in 2015, OPG will have already signed the construction contracts for the project. Ontario will be locking into the Darlington nuclear rebuild, without ever having publicly reviewed the costs of the project or compared it with alternatives.
In any other context, that would seem unreasonable. Imagine if you were renovating your house, and a contractor asked you to hire him without a full price quote. Never mind that this particular contractor has never delivered on time or on budget in the past — the deal he’s offering forces you to commit without seeing the price tag. Why wouldn’t you shop around for a better deal, especially when a less risky and more cost-effective option is available?
For Ontario, that option is investing in a diversified portfolio of conservation and renewable energy technologies. The advantage of an efficient and renewable portfolio is simple: it can be built in smaller increments and in less time than nuclear reactors. And unlike nuclear, the deployment of renewable energy can be accelerated or decelerated in response to changes in Ontario’s electricity demand.
While the cost of rebuilding nuclear reactors continues to rise, the costs of renewable energy technologies keep falling. Moreover, the construction risks and cost overruns of renewable technologies are borne by investors rather than ratepayers. The same can’t be said for nuclear power: Ontarians are still paying off cost overruns from past nuclear projects through the debt retirement charge on their monthly hydro bills, while waste disposal and liability costs are subsidized by various levels of government.
It’s good news that the government has decided not to build new nuclear capacity. But it’s still unwise to commit billions to rebuilding existing nuclear reactors without considering reasonable low-emissions alternatives. That is especially true when those alternatives are more flexible, more affordable and less risky than nuclear. Before we’re locked into an expensive contract, lets consider our options. It’s the wise thing to do.
Read more at OP-ED: Making wise energy investments for Ontario