It's been thirty-four years since the government of Ontario last rolled out the cement trucks to build a new nuclear reactor. In about ten weeks' time, a panel of decision-makers representing the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will start reviewing if and how Ontario Power Generation will construct new reactors on the north shore of Lake Ontario at Darlington.
This pivotal hearing will set the tone for nuclear development in Canada in the coming decades as well as environmental decision-making procedures in the twenty-first century.
The Ontario government announced the Darlington New Build project in 2008. The government directed Ontario Power Generation to develop a plan for new nuclear reactors at its existing site in Durham Region. Ontario suspended its bid process in 2009 when the world's reactor manufacturers (including the Canadian government-owned AECL) failed to submit an attractive offer. Even though no reactor technology has been chosen, the planning process, including the environmental assessment and licencing hearing, have continued.
Nuclear plants have always been controversial in Ontario. The most frequently reported concerns stem from costs (e.g., Darlington A cost $14.4-billion, six times the original estimate); timing (e.g., Darlington A was completed ten years late); radiation releases, especially in an emergency or accident; and waste management (both the environmental impacts and the expense of managing nuclear waste).
Other serious environmental concerns, unrelated to radiation and nuclear fuel, are discussed less often. Nuclear power plants use huge amounts of water. In the U.S., power plants like these account for about half of all the water withdrawn in the entire country. On the Great Lakes, the figure is even higher; 71% of all water withdrawn from the Great Lakes is consumed by power plants.
The cooling water systems used at Ontario nuclear power plants draw massive amounts of water from the lake, pulling in fish, eggs, and larvae at the same time. In 2004, it was estimated that Darlington Nuclear Power Plant entrained 15,631,833 eggs and 1,201,943 larvae; as many as 97% of these organisms did not survive.
Warm water released from the plants also influences water quality, contributing to algae growth and affecting water quality at swimming areas.
After two years of pre-hearing study, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will review OPG's environmental impact reports during a unique hearing process that begins March 21, 2011. The Commission's expertise is in the nuclear issues, but it will review all environmental impacts of the project, including water quality, water withdrawals, air emissions, dust, traffic, and fish habitat.
This is a federal environmental assessment as well as a licencing hearing. The Commission will make the decision to approve the plant and impose terms and conditions on all aspects of its design. However, this is not a true hearing for a number of reasons:
- Presenters will not make submissions under oath
- There is no formal cross-examination (the public must submit questions via the panel Chair or ask permission to pose a question directly to another presenter)
- Oral presentations cannot exceed 30 minutes
- Intervenors cannot make traditional opening, closing, and reply arguments
The CNSC panel will make a recommendation to Canada's Environment Minister (Hon. Peter Kent), who will make the final decision regarding the fate of the Darlington new build project.
As one of our experts has noted, the choices made this year about Darlington will determine the impacts of the project on Lake Ontario for the next sixty years. We probably face no single decision more consequential than if and how Ontario should put another nuclear power plant on Lake Ontario.
We are disappointed that the decision-making body does not represent a cross-section of government departments (Environment, Natural Resources, Fisheries, etc.). We are disappointed that the Ontario government has dragged its feet on the provincial environmental assessment process. We are disappointed that the rules for the hearing itself do not reflect a more traditional hearing. And we are disappointed that opportunities for members of the general public to participate less formally and outside of business hours have not been announced.
All that said, we have never been more positive about our community's enthusiasm for a swimmable, drinkable, fishable Lake Ontario. It's never too late to make the right choices.
Stay tuned: Next week, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper comments on the Ontario government's new energy directive. Later this month, we will share our formal submission and evidence on the Darlington nuclear new build.