Voters won't like hearing what new reactors cost

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It's just as well that the Ontario Legislature added an aboriginal prayer to its proceedings that beseeched the Great Spirit for "your wisdom and your strength," because the government is soon going to test the patience of everyone in the province.

The selection of the Darlington nuclear generation station as the site of two new reactors moves this whole nuclear adventure one more step past the theoretical and nearer to the point where we know what it will cost. But even at this point it's a near certainty that the renewed program is going to be much more expensive than originally forecast, which would throw an element of confusion into Ontario's electricity system and threaten its economic health.

This is a speculation, of course. Now, we know only where the new reactors - the first since the original Darlington units went into service in 1993 - will be. We don't know the technology to be used - the Candu of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. or the designs of Areva NP or Westinghouse Electric Co. - but we will by the end of the year.

What we won't know for a very long while is how much this whole endeavour is going to cost. For now, that's good news for the government because few voters are going to like what they find out. Indeed, skepticism about nukes has been ingrained in Ontarians ever since the original Darlington plants opened a decade late and three times over initial cost estimates.

Energy Minister Gerry Phillips is right when he says that the cost overruns were mostly caused by a stop-start construction program. He hopes that fierce bidding among AECL, Areva and Westinghouse will keep costs down.

But there is a limit to what the firms can do as the costs of commodities, labour and high-tech fabrications soar.

When the government first received advice in 2005 about its power-supply system, the Ontario Power Authority was assuming nuclear construction costs of $2,600 per kilowatt or $2.6-billion for a 1,000-megawatt reactor. It is to dream. Now, a U.S. industry group, the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, is saying that the figure is at least $3,500 per kilowatt and this might even be a low ball.

Last fall, for example, Moody's Investors Service said new reactors could cost as much as $6,000 per kilowatt. The company said this was "only marginally better than a guess," but this spring, Florida Light and Power proposed building new units at a cost of up to $8,000 per kilowatt or $12-billion per reactor.

"We are shocked at the magnitude of the escalation," said David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, an anti-nuclear group in Chicago. He cited the cost of construction materials such as copper, steel and concrete as one reason for the surge in costs, but noted as well that the 20-year moratorium on construction has forced the industry to reinvent the specialized techniques that nuclear fission requires. Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Steve Kerekes agreed that commodity prices "are up pretty substantially."

The government has been advised by the Ontario Power Authority that a $26-billion investment over 20 years will allow the construction of new reactors and the refurbishment of old ones to ensure that nuclear generation continues to provide about half the province's electricity. But if, as seems likely, the new Darlington reactors eat up a huge chunk of that budget, the question is where the money will come from to refurbish or replace the aged Pickering reactors or other projects not yet dreamed of.

"We are weak, we are small," says the Ojibwa prayer recited in the legislature. "We need your wisdom and strength."

Wise words, indeed.


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