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Darlington Nuclear: A Layman's Primer

author: Gary May

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Plans are underway to refurbish and expand the giant nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Ontario. Just what’s in the works?

Nuclear-generated power has been haunted by controversy since the first station was opened in the former Soviet Union nearly six decades ago. Now, as Ontario Power Generation (OPG) contemplates spending $20 billion or more at its Darlington station in Durham Region west of Port Hope, the debate between those who say nuclear power is safe, pollution-free and economical, and those who recall the fright the world sustained over Japan’s Fukushima meltdowns, has never been more heated.

That kind of spending just west of Watershed Country would inevitably benefit this region as well as Durham. The question of whether to proceed with two more nuclear reactors is hotly debated in the corridors of the Ontario Legislature.

The opposition Conservatives are strong supporters of nuclear energy, says the party’s energy critic, Victor Fedeli, while the New Democrats, according to NDP critic Peter Tabuns, believe it’s neither prudent nor necessary. In the middle, Ontario’s Liberal Energy Minister, Chris Bentley, is spending $26 million just to prepare a plan, a schedule and cost estimate for two new reactors. But Bentley still declines to say whether he’ll lift the moratorium on nuclear the McGuinty government imposed in 2009.

Politics aside, this article focuses on what is planned for the Darlington site. We have attempted to answer questions that will help the reader understand our community’s relationship with one of the largest nuclear facilities in the province.

What is Darlington, and how long has it been around? The Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, located on Lake Ontario between Oshawa and Bowmanville, is a four-reactor station that is owned by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and has the capacity to produce 3,512 megawatts of electrical power. That’s enough to supply a city of two million people. It is the second largest power generating station in Ontario, after the combined Bruce A and Bruce B nuclear stations. Darlington’s reactors were opened between 1990 and 1993.

What's going on at the Darlington station? OPG has contracted SNC-Lavalin, at a cost of $600 million, to plan the refurbishment of Darlington’s four existing CANDU reactors. In addition, OPG is paying SNC-Lavalin and Westinghouse $26 million to prepare construction plans, schedules and cost estimates for the construction of two new CANDU reactors, called the Darlington New Nuclear Project. If the new reactors are built, they will be the first new nuclear project in Canada in the 21st century.

The Ministry of Natural Resources has approved the environmental assessment plan presented by the Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington project. Licencing application approvals are now being considered by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The Commission now awaits a decision by OPG to submit an official application to construct the plant.

What’s OPG? Ontario Power Generation is a public company wholly owned by the government of Ontario. It produces 60%-70% of the province’s electricity. OPG was established in 1999 as the first step toward deregulating Ontario’s electricity market. It was one of five separate corporations carved out of the former giant public corporation, Ontario Hydro. OPG’s responsibility is to own and operate the province’s publicly-owned power generation plants.

What’s ‘Candu’? CANDU stands for Canada Deuterium Uranium. CANDU reactors are pressurized heavy-water units designed and built by Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. since the 1950s. All nuclear power plants in Canada are powered by CANDU reactors.

What’s ‘refurbishment’ and why is it necessary? When Darlington was designed, part of the long term plan was to refurbish the four original reactors once they were about 30-years-old. That’s standard practice with CANDU reactors in Canada. Without refurbishment, the reactors would reach the end of their lives by about 2018-20. Currently, the reactors are performing at peak efficiency. Once the rebuild is completed, they will continue to function for another three decades before decommissioning.

Are the new nuclear project and the refurbishment project related? No. The refurbishment and the Darlington New Nuclear Project are two separate undertakings.

What’s all this work going to cost and who’s going to pay? While OPG is withholding comment on the cost until all the studies are complete – likely in about a year – third-party estimates are that refurbishment will cost $10 billion and construction of the new reactors another $10 billion or more. In fact, some estimates suggest the total cost could be closer to $30 billion. Cost of construction will be borne by the Ontario taxpayer – through the debt retirement charge on their electricity bills and through taxes required to cover consumer rate subsidies.

How much power does OPG generate, and how? In 2011, OPG produced 60% of the electrical power used in Ontario. It has the capacity to produce 19,000 megawatts at any given time. But that means there are plenty of smaller private energy producers around the province. Those include companies that own small water-powered generating stations such as those in Northumberland and Hastings Counties, wind generating companies and private businesses fitted with solar generators.

As of June 2012, the Independent Electricity System Operator – an organization of Ontario’s power generators, transmitters and utilities – reported the province had the capacity to generate 34,079 megawatts of electrical power, including OPG’s 19,000. Of OPG’s total, 33% was by means of nuclear, 29% by natural gas, 23% by water, 10% by coal and 4.4% by wind, with bioenergy, solar and other generation methods accounting for about 0.4% of capacity.

But that is “capacity.” In actual fact, Ontario requires less power than it is capable of producing and coal and natural gas are used as needed to meet demand at peak times. Of all the actual electrical power produced in 2011 to meet Ontarians’ needs, 56.9% came from nuclear generation, 22.2% from water, 14.7% from natural gas, 2.7% from coal, 2.6% from wind and 0.8% by other means.

How long has Ontario been producing nuclear energy? Ontario’s first nuclear power plant, at Douglas Point on Lake Huron, opened in 1968. In the 1970s and 1980s, reactors were built at Pickering and with demand for electricity quickly rising in the late ’70s, plans were drawn up for the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station.

How does nuclear power create electricity? Darlington uses natural uranium fuel to create a process called nuclear fission. Heat produced from the “reaction” is transferred by a heavy water heat transport system to boilers, where ordinary water is boiled and the steam is used to drive a turbine generator, which produces electricity.

With all these wind turbines going up around the countryside, is nuclear energy really necessary? Right now, yes. Wind power has been hailed as an alternative energy source that will add capacity to Ontario’s power grid, but no one believes it will ever replace a power source as important as nuclear. Besides, wind generation has many detractors, who point out that power can only be generated when the wind blows and by prior contractual agreement OPG must purchase wind power as it’s produced. That means OPG is buying wind-generated energy that is produced even in the middle of the night, when demand is at its lowest. The unpredictability of wind also means that alternative methods of generation must always be ready to pick up the slack when the wind isn’t blowing.

What about solar and other types of “new energy” – will they be able to help? Absolutely, and there’s plenty of room to grow. There have been tremendous strides in solar power generation and improvements are constantly being announced. For example, one company, Natcore Solar, is demonstrating how its black silicon process is effective even on cloudy days and in diffused light conditions. Already, Enbridge’s Sarnia Solar Project is the largest solar farm in the world.

Then there’s bioenergy – a form of renewable energy that uses organic and waste products from agriculture and garbage to produce heat to run electricity generators.

There is also a movement afoot that champions the development of community-based hydro electric power generated from smaller rivers and streams. But as mentioned these types of power generation are intending to augment, not replace nuclear power.

Are we using more electricity these days? No. In Ontario, our usage has been going down since 2006. This year, usage hit heat-driven summertime highs of about 26,000 megawatts, well below capacity. Consumer awareness about energy conservation may be having a small impact, but the sad truth is, it’s the steady de-industrialization of the province that’s having the biggest impact. Despite the province’s loss of industry and drop in energy use, proponents of the Darlington New Nuclear Project contend that it would be irresponsible not to plan for future growth and increased demand for electricity.

So if we’re using less electricity and producing more, why is the price rising? You would think the basic rule of supply and demand would come into play and the price of energy would fall. But Ontario has adopted a green energy policy, in an effort to produce more energy through sustainable means and less from fossil fuels – coal is to be phased out by 2014. It would appear that our electricity rates are rising so quickly because of the cost of alternative energy forms. Right now, it costs more to produce electricity from wind, solar and bioenergy than it does from nuclear, coal and natural gas, although with technological improvements, that could change.

Ontario exports electrical energy. Is that the real reason they want to build another station – to increase exports? Between 2002 and 2003, Ontario paid $900 million to import power. Since 2006, Ontario’s power exports have generated $1.9 billion in revenue. This June alone, the province collected $16.6 million by selling excess power to its neighbours.

Ontario is linked to a power grid that serves Manitoba, Quebec, New York, Michigan and Minnesota. When one of the linked jurisdictions requires more power, it buys that power from one of the other partners.

So, then, why would we spend all that money to add nuclear reactors? New Nuclear facilities would cover anticipated future increases in demand and would replace aging power plants. Since 2003, Ontario has added more than 9,000 megawatts of new electricity supply – enough to power two million homes. The Pickering nuclear station is aging and will some day be decommissioned. Given the long lead time required to go through environmental assessments, hearings and licensing procedures, a decision on building a new power plant needs to be made years before the power is actually needed. Ontario’s energy ministry says it plans to rebuild 80% of OPG’s electricity generating system in the next 20 years.

How safe is nuclear energy production? Dismiss any images of Homer Simpson falling asleep at the gauges and green goo seeping out of barrels. Our nuclear plants are definitely high-tech. Nuclear plants are built with multiple barriers to safeguard against the release of radioactive materials. They are regularly tested and inspected. Darlington is licensed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and is subject to federal and provincial environmental regulations such as the Environmental Protection Act.

Reactor buildings are made of heavily reinforced concrete 1.8 metres thick, which enclose the reactors. Each building contains one reactor and four steam generators. And the fact is, there has never been a serious incident at any Canadian nuclear power plant.

What about the waste produced by nuclear power plants? Is it being safely disposed of? There are three types of nuclear waste: spent fuel, low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste. At Darlington, a huge warehouse is filled with hundreds of white concrete containers. The reinforced containers, dry storage casks, are where cylindrical bundles of used nuclear fuel are placed. Similar warehouses exist at nearby Pickering and the Bruce plant. These warehouses represent the current method of storing Ontario’s most critical nuclear waste.

Mike Krizanc, spokesman for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, says it has been decided the best option is to bury the waste 500 metres underground in a deep geological repository. A location for this repository must be found so that today’s society does not leave the problem of nuclear waste disposal for future generations. So far, no such location has been selected, so the used fuel sits in these secure sites awaiting a decision.

Low- and intermediate-level waste consists of items that are less radioactive, such as mop heads, cloths and paper towels used in cleanup, and protective clothing, as well as reactor core components and filters. These items are currently shipped to a facility at Bruce for storage, with plans for a special deep geological repository to bury them permanently.

What happened at Fukushima? Could it happen here? On March 11, 2011, a significant earthquake led to a series of events that saw the meltdown of several nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan. A study of those events concluded that the meltdowns occurred due to human error, not technological failure. Nuclear operators such as OPG quickly jumped into action to determine what could be learned and applied from the experience there. Wayne Robbins, chief nuclear officer at OPG, reported that inspections and reviews showed OPG’s facilities would withstand such an emergency if it occurred here.

What impact has the Fukushima experience had on the world’s opinion of nuclear energy? Immediately after the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, many countries began reviewing their dependence on nuclear power. Germany announced plans to phase out its nuclear reactors and Switzerland and Italy followed suit. As a consequence of the nuclear disaster, Japan is cautiously moving away from nuclear expansion.

Meanwhile, after the initial slowdown in nuclear growth that occurred post-Fukushima, much of the world has been gearing back up again, especially the developing countries. Major new expansions are planned for several nations, including China, India and Russia. Worldwide, there are more than 435 nuclear reactors in operation in 30 countries, according to the World Nuclear Association, and more than 80 more are under construction or being upgraded.

What would happen if all of the world’s nuclear power plants were shut down? The concern is that without nuclear generated power, developed nations like Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Italy will turn increasingly toward more high-pollution fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Another scenario, however, is that the move away from nuclear will speed up work on state-of-the-art new technologies such as solar and bioenergy.

What is the public’s view about nuclear energy? A survey by Innovative Research Group commissioned by the Canadian Nuclear Association earlier this year, showed support for nuclear generated power was stronger in Ontario than any other province. While just 37% of Canadians support nuclear power, the figure is 54% in this province. But the survey also suggested that once Ontario eliminates coal as a generator of electrical power in 2014, nuclear generated power could become the next “bad guy,” and public opinion could begin to turn more strongly against it.

So, will the Darlington New Nuclear Project be built? Ultimately, the decision will be made by OPG’s “boss,” the Ontario government.

Yes, it’s needed, says Ontario’s Conservative party. “Nuclear power is safe, reliable and affordable,” says MPP Victor Fedeli.

No it’s not, says the NDP. “We have a huge surplus of electrical capacity,” says MPP Peter Tabuns. “Nuclear isn’t non-polluting. We don’t need it.”

Maybe, say the Liberals. Contracting prospective builders to set out a plan and costing figures “does not mean we’re committed to new-build,” says Energy Minister Chris Bentley. “It does not mean we need the new generation [of nuclear].”

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