Senior government officials say they hope the heated competition among Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric and Areva of France will spark a nuclear revival in Ontario.
With atomic energy growing in popularity globally as governments strive to curb greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, Queen's Park wants to make Ontario a centre of innovation.
"There's a nuclear renaissance, as you know, and we can be a bigger part of that," confided one senior insider. "More expertise in this field is going to be needed around the world, and we can help."
Energy Minister Gerry Phillips announced that two new reactors will be built at Darlington and operated by publicly owned Ontario Power Generation as part of the province's $26.3 billion atomic expansion.
Phillips wants shovels in the ground at the existing nuclear station in 2012 and the reactors up and running by July 1, 2018. The winning bid for design of new reactors is to be announced in November.
Premier Dalton McGuinty, in California on business, said electricity transmission capacity not keeping the new nuclear plant in the hands of OPG instead of privately owned Bruce Power, which operates the Bruce reactors on Lake Huron was a "huge consideration" in Darlington's favour.
Locating the new plant so close to a major population centre, Toronto, was not a concern despite fears raised by anti-nuclear groups, McGuinty added.
"Overall, we've had a really good safety record... and this is with relatively old technology. What we're talking about now is new technology, which to my understanding is much improved in terms of the safety variances," he said.
In the Legislature, the Liberals faced questions from opposition parties about the plans.
Progressive Conservative MPP John Yakabuski (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke) said the government's "dithering has cost Ontarians" because new reactors should have been announced years ago.
"There's no assurance of a reliable, affordable, sustainable energy supply in... Ontario," he said, noting plans to shut smog-spewing coal-fired plants that generate a quarter of the province's electricity in 2014 will leave a "four-year gap" before the new reactors are online.
"Because (the Liberals) refused to install scrubbers on the coal plants, as our party suggested, we're going to see the number of smog-related deaths, now pegged at 9,500 a year, dramatically increase."
NDP MPP Peter Tabuns (Toronto Danforth), who opposes new nuclear plants, warned the Liberals are dooming "Ontario to an expensive, unreliable $50 billion nuclear future" that will saddle ratepayers with hefty bills for decades.
"Nuclear power project cost overruns account for $15 billion of the nearly $20 billion of the 'stranded debt' left by Ontario Hydro," said Tabuns, recalling nuclear projects by OPG's predecessor company.
"Each month, every household and business in Ontario contributes to paying off this massive debt through debt retirement charges on every single hydro bill. Why is this government so intent on repeating history?" he said.
The energy minister countered the province has "learned some lessons" from past nuclear debacles.
"We have three very good companies that are in the request-for-proposal stage. It will be a competitive process," said Phillips.
"The last time it was single-sourced, I might add the project started, stopped, started, stopped," he said, referring to construction problems at Darlington.
Ontario plans to maintain existing capacity of 14,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated power, or about half the peak provincial demand.