Climate Change Energy Environment

The energy transition Ontario really needs is to nuclear

By Lawrence Solomon, published by Financial Post

If Ontario wants to keep its lights on and its economy stable, it needs to abandon the fantasy that wind and solar power can make a meaningful contribution to its energy needs. In the absence of untapped hydroelectric sites, the provincial government’s determination to outlaw fossil fuels in pursuit of an all-electric society means Ontario has no choice but to go nuclear.

Large-scale wind and solar have never been competitive, despite the narrative since the first Earth Day in 1970 that plummeting costs eventually would see them overtake fossil fuels. Today, a half century later, wind and solar in Ontario remain two to four times as expensive as nuclear, four to eight times as expensive as hydroelectricity, and 10 to 20 times as expensive as fossil fuels would be in a free market.

The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 illustrates the abject failure of renewables to become competitive. It not only requires taxpayers to subsidize 50 per cent of the renewables’ capital costs, it also provides a subsidy of 2.6 cents per kilowatt-hour produced, which coincidentally matches the 2.6 cents per kwh that the Energy Information Agency claims to be the cost of new wind power. Put another way, the U.S. government evidently believes it needs to pay wind power producers more than 100 per cent of their costs to make it worth their while to remain in the wind business.

But renewables’ direct cost is only the half of it. They are also unreliable — the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine — which means electricity grids that use them incur enormous costs in providing backup, either by building vast battery systems or, ironically, by relying on fossil fuel plants. Even worse, large-scale use of renewables raises the spectre of massive blackouts and catastrophic collapses of entire power grids.

In 2021 in Texas, the inability of wind turbines to perform over four days in extreme winter weather led the power grid to fail, leaving millions without electricity, water and heat. The previous year, the California power grid failed in summer due to an over-reliance on solar panels, whose electricity production wanes during and after sunset — precisely when Californians need electricity most.

Neither does environmental protection, the traditional rationale for embracing large-scale wind and solar, justify renewables. As exhaustively documented by environmental writer Andrew Nikiforuk, the damage caused by the mining and manufacturing required to produce wind turbines and solar photo-voltaics dwarfs that of non-renewables, making the renewables dream, as Nikiforuk puts it, “a wholesale fiction.”

If imaginary capabilities have spurred the adoption of renewables, imaginary fears have held back nuclear. In more than a half-century of operating experience, no nuclear accident in any western nuclear plant has ever led to a loss of life. Nor have fears over the escape of radiation been borne out. Even releases from the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl accident — a total meltdown in a reactor designed with no containment that ejected astounding amounts of radiation over a 10-day period — caused little harm to the general public.

“There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure,” the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reported after examining Chernobyl’s actual mortality and morbidity statistics. It went on: “The risk of leukemia, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated, not even among the recovery operation workers. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population are not likely to experience serious health consequences from radiation from the Chernobyl accident.”

Nuclear power not only costs much less than renewables, it’s far more reliable. Unlike wind and solar, which operate just 33 per cent and 25 per cent of the time, respectively, and not necessarily when they’re needed, nuclear plants run flat out, 24/7. On average, they are available 82 per cent of the time worldwide, 76 per cent in Canada and 92 per cent in the U.S.

Relying on a system dominated by nuclear reactors has its challenges, apart from the panic that the myths associated with their safety can engender. Because reactors can’t be efficiently turned off or dialed down, they will produce power even when it’s not needed, which is typically in the middle of the night, when demand falls off. But having too much power when it’s not needed is less of a problem than not having enough when it is needed — which is characteristic of renewables.

Because nuclear reactors can take a long time to build and because Ontario’s current contracts with wind developers start expiring over the next few years, the time to move to nuclear is now. If the government really is determined to transition away from fossil fuels, the one transition that can save Ontarians from untold grief is a transition to nuclear power.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe.

Read the original version of this article at the publisher’s website here.

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