Capacity gap after nuclear lay ups

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In the largest single cutback in the world nuclear industry, Canadian utility Ontario Hydro is to prematurely lay up seven of its oldest and most problem plagued reactors. The loss of 4600 MW of generating capacity offers potentially major chances for wind and other renewable energy sources, according to the Independent Power Producers' Society of Ontario (IPPSO).

Announcing its decision in mid August, Ontario Hydro said the lay ups are scheduled for completion within one year. At the same time as tacitly admitting to nuclear's failures, however, the utility is pledging billions of dollars of support to its remaining, newer nuclear reactors in an apparently arbitrary decision.

Public reaction has been such that the government is coming under pressure to oppose what are being perceived as Ontario Hydro's financial excesses and the priority it gives to nuclear power. The utility is owned by the Ontario government.

IPPSO is prepared "to replace Ontario Hydro's failing nuclear reactors at lower cost, and with much reduced environmental impacts, than Hydro's proposed increase in fossil fuelled generation," according to the organisation's Jake Brooks. Hydro says it will operate existing coal and oil fuelled plants at higher levels, seek to buy more power from adjacent utilities and go ahead with refurbishing 12 nuclear reactors. The planned investment is C$10 billion.

Cheapest option

But IPPSO has other ideas. "Independent power producers have been shut out of the market for several years by Ontario Hydro, because Hydro claimed it had a large surplus of power," says IPPSO president Tom Brett. He advocates the construction of cleaner, independent power plants, basing his arguments on a new IPPSO study released in mid August. The study found that a combination of cogeneration and renewable energy is a viable economic alternative. When all costs are considered, cogen and renewable power all cost less than C$0.10/kWh, while Ontario Hydro's coal, nuclear and large hydroelectric plants cost more, says the study.

Hydro's board of directors based its surprise August 12 decision on an internal review of its nuclear programme led by a seven member US "nuclear recovery" team. The evaluation ranked the operation of the Pickering, Bruce and Darlington nuclear stations as "minimally acceptable." The report cited many deep seated failures in staff training, reactor operation and maintenance.

The expected operating life of Ontario Hydro's reactors was 40 years, but the announced closures have reduced this by up to 50%. If the reactors were to continue operation, it would have cost billions of dollars in repairs and 3000 more staff.

Hydro insists that its difficulties are basically managerial and are not about technical or economic problems basic to the Candu system. This claim is disputed by IPPSO which says unsolved technological problems with Candu nuclear reactors also lie behind the closures. "There are basic problems with the technology, from chemistry to metallurgy," says Brooks.

Candu economics are further complicated by Hydro's need to collect at least $15 billion from ratepayers for retiring nuclear plant and disposing of nuclear waste. Instead of using the several billion already collected for this purpose, Ontario Hydro has spent it on supporting existing nuclear reactors.

In response to the revelations of Hydro's mismanagement and other troubles, the Ontario Government announced on August 18 that it will establish a select committee of the provincial legislature to investigate the utility.

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