Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Nuke billions dwarf gas-plant millions

Ontario politics is presenting us with lots of storm and fury over money wasted on energy boondoggles, without much accountability, consistency, or perspective.
The lead story remains the money lost when the Liberal government cancelled two gas-fired electric plants during the last election season, to garner votes and save seats. Obviously the local residents didn’t want those gas plants, and democracy is supposed to mean doing what voters want, but here the Liberals ignored local objections until the last minute, running up a huge bill. That’s the second strike, that they did this without any idea of the cost. Actually, the attack narrative swings between the Liberals lying about how much it would cost and the Liberals doing this without knowing what it might cost. Sure, these are contradictory accusations, but in politics what seems to matter is the mud, not the clarity.
Either way, it cost a bundle. Critics tout the figure of a billion dollars, although the real costs seems to have settled at just over half that. Yet there are two aspects to this whole kerfuffle that I find disturbing, beyond, of course, the wasted money.
The first is that although the other parties are doing their best to excoriate the Liberals for cancelling the gas plants without knowing the cost, they themselves had the exact same policy, and if they don’t know the cost now, they certainly didn’t know it then. They listened to the voters, too, so they also promised to shelve the gas plants, the only real difference being the Liberals were actually in a position to do it. It’s a weak platform from which to hurl attacks.
But the other, more sinister problem, is what’s happening now without a spotlight. Ontario is steadily moving ahead with plans to refurbish our expensive, aging, underperforming nuclear reactors, and may yet build new ones. Although the decision to refurbish the Darlington reactors hasn’t been finalized, the government has already signed contracts totaling almost a billion dollars (there’s that figure again) to start the estimates and design. The lion’s share is going to SNC-Lavalin, exposed this week for years of illegal bribery and kickbacks. The actual job could cost as much as 10 billion dollars, from the government’s own estimates. And recall that this plant was supposed to cost less than $4 billion to build, yet the final bill came in at over $14 billion. So how much will refurbishment really cost? No one can say, but the best guess is in the double-digit billions. Vastly more than was lost in the gas plant cancellations. Yet I bet you haven’t heard anything about this, until now.
Our elected officials need to cut the attacks, and start looking at a better energy plan for all of Ontario, one that puts conservation first, shifts supply to renewables, and takes us away from the pig-in-a-poke cost overruns of nuclear power.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Forget attacks and focus on better energy plan".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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