1997 September 10

The Leader Post
Regina, Saskatchewan

To the Editor:

On August 13 Ontario Hydro announced that it would rehabilitate its fleet of nuclear reactors, necessitating the temporary shutdown of seven of its oldest units sometime in 1998. This move has sparked a feeding frenzy in the anti-nuclear camp, as everyon e from professional activists down to grass-roots volunteers vies for a piece of the megalithic utility's flesh. As the letter from John Warnock of the "Left Green Alliance" suggests (Sept. 3), this fervor is not restricted to Ontario. However, lest som e of your readers suspect that Warnock's comments reflect in any way the reality of the situation, I'd like to address some of them here.

First, the facts. The independent review commissioned by Ontario Hydro, which lead to the decision to rehabilitate, did not criticize CANDU technology itself. Rather, it was the management culture in Ontario Hydro that came under fire, while the CANDU t echnology was praised as being robust.

This is good news for Canadians, who have invested some $5 billion in nuclear R&D over the last four decades. In return for this investment, nuclear power saves a billion dollars a year in foreign exchange, with a total savings of $20 billion to date. F urthermore, the $5 billion R&D cost is equaled each year by the annual value of electricity produced by Canadian CANDU plants. Each year the product makes back its investment.

Additionally, Canadians own a high-tech product that is respected world-wide for performance and uncompromising safety. CANDU reactors lead the world in sales, while at home the nuclear infrastructure employs over 30,000 Canadians and adds billions to the GNP.

Now, to address the comments made by Mr. Warnock:

It was said that the economics of the nuclear industry are unfair because of extensive subsidies received from governments, decommissioning costs not being amortized, and accident liability being limited. The research subsidy, as mentioned, was clearly g overnment money well spent. Decommissioning costs are in fact included in the rate base for electricity. Accident liability is a complex issue. It certainly is limited, as it must be for a technology that has never had an accident (in Canada) leading t o civilian damages, but it is doubtful that this reduces insurance costs. For example, if it weren't for Nuclear Liability legislation, a utility as large as Ontario Hydro would likely self-insure against damages, as it does with its non-nuclear plants. In all likelihood, this represents a cost disadvantage compared to conventional sources of electricity without accompanying insurance legislation.

It was said that CANDU reactors are unexpectedly requiring major retubing upgrades halfway through their planned lifetime. In fact, the retubing of CANDU reactors was always in the "maintenance manual", just like the replacement of brakes on automobiles.

It was said that CANDU reactors produce power that is more expensive than that from other sources. In fact, nuclear electricity in Ontario is, on average, about 65% of the cost of fossil electricity.

It was said that a conflict of interest exists, since the industry is regulated by "Atomic Energy Canada", which also promotes nuclear power. In fact, the industry is regulated by a federal agency called the "Atomic Energy Control Board", which is indepe ndent of the crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the vendor of the CANDU reactor. The regulator is not responsible for promotion of nuclear power.

Finally, it was said that environmental groups are urging conservation programs as a replacement for Ontario's nuclear generation. In fact, conservation by itself is only part of a sustainable plan, and most environment groups in Ontario are touting natu ral-gas turbine technology. Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal or oil, but it is not cleaner than nuclear power. It shares many of the drawbacks of conventional fossil power, with the added problem that the fuel itself is a greenhouse gas. What i s the leak rate in transcontinental pipelines, and how much more of a problem will we have when the current supply is doubled or tripled to meet increased demands in the east? How many decades of natural gas are left in the bubble? Now shorten that by a factor of two or three.

Nuclear power is not a panacea, but a contributor to a power strategy that includes clean fossil technology, hydraulic power, as well as nuclear power and aggressive conservation. Ontario is the industrial heartland of Canada, with an electrical grid lar ger than that of most countries. Meeting and managing this need is a complex job not to be taken lightly, as Mr. Warnock has done. Nuclear power is necessary for the future of this country and the environment.


Jeremy Whitlock