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Falling demand for electricity, sky-high cost projections, a catastrophic meltdown in Japan and a dedicated resistance to nuclear expansion have contributed to tough times for advocates of new and rebuilt nuclear reactors in Ontario.
The latest punch in the gut for nuclear proponents in the province comes from a May 14 Federal Court decision to nullify the approval of up to four new reactors at Darlington Station, about 60km east of Toronto.
Among other issues, the presiding Justice James Russell cited inadequate planning for both nuclear waste storage and a catastrophic accident as reasons to revoke the project's license, which was originally secured following a multi-year environmental assessment (EA). Justice Russell found that the EA failed to adhere to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
The Federal Court review of the EA was initiated by environmental groups Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), Greenpeace Canada, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (LOW) and Northwatch with lawyers from Ecojustice and CELA representing the application in court.
In a press release following the decision, the environmental groups called the Federal Court's ruling "common sense."
Justin Duncan, Staff Lawyer for Ecojustice and co-counsel for groups, said "the court's ruling means that federal authorities can no longer take shortcuts when assessing nuclear projects."
"The federal government must protect Canadians from energy projects that may harm the health of the environment. Because the panel failed to assess certain environmental effects, the court revoked the project's licence."
Ontario Power Generation (OPG), who was ordered by the McGuinty Liberals in 2006 to start the process for new reactors at Darlington, still has options towards building the new reactors.
Rick Lindgren of CELA, who presented the case alongside Duncan said, "we do not yet know if the decision will be appealed, or if the EA process will be restarted to address the various deficiencies identified by the Federal Court."
While Lindgren strikes a cautious note regarding OPG's intentions going forward, he's much more optimistic about the message that the decision sends.
"The decision sends a strong signal to other proponents and federal authorities that environmentally significant projects must be subject to a robust EA process that satisfies the legal requirements of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act."
And it seems the call for more robust environmental regulation is gaining traction in the host community. In an editorial following the decision, a local paper called on OPG to "accept the ruling and work quickly to address the gaps Justice Russell has identified in the existing environmental assessment."
Greenpeace's Nuclear Analyst, Shawn-Patrick Stensil thinks that receiving an endorsement from media around Darlington Station is telling.
"Durham Region is always being portrayed as uniformly supportive [of nuclear] by OPG. But many locals seem to think it's fair for OPG to not to have a blank cheque, and do due diligence. But will OPG be willing to openly discuss the risks its reactors pose?"
Nukes on the campaign trail
Initiatives to reduce escalating Hydro bills have thus far taken up the most energy-related space on the election trail. However, the court's decision does seem to enhance the credibility of the Ontario New Democrats' (ONDP) energy platform, while troubling those of the Liberals and Conservatives.
Dating back to Howard Hampton's leadership, the ONDP has remained opposed to building new reactors in Ontario. The ONDP's election platform highlights a pledge for a solar panel and energy efficiency fund to help homeowners produce clean electricity and consume less power.
In response to a recent Ontario Clean Air Alliance questionnaire, the ONDP was very critical of the Liberals' plan to rebuild nuclear units in the province. The ONDP indicated that they would support cost-effective conservation and efficiency measures before spending tax and rate-payer dollars on rebuilding reactors.
They added, "hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted through the cancellation of gas and nuclear plants...Signing contracts for nuclear refurbishment without knowing the final price tag or seeing the business case will only push costs even higher for consumers. That's just not acceptable."
Both the Liberals and PCs have placed nuclear expansion and or revitalization as large components of their projected energy plans.
The Liberal spokesperson interviewed for this piece condemned the PCs plan, saying "Tim Hudak wants to build $15 billion worth of new nuclear we don't need and cancel existing clean energy contracts, putting ratepayers on the hook for up to $20 billion."
Lefty voters being wooed by the latest Liberal attempt to position themselves as the more progressive and reasonable choice to slay the Conservatives should note that the Grits and PCs are mostly identical on nuclear power.
In addition to both the PCs and Liberals openness to spending billions and testing the risks of new nuclear in the province, each party's energy stance includes a commitment to rebuilding existing reactors at Darlington and Bruce Stations.
Following the ruling stripping approval of new reactors at Darlington, a decision Greenpeace's Stensil called "a firewall from a really bad political decision," he wants the debate during the rest of the election to focus on plans to rebuild existing nuclear units.
"I'd hope that it allows us to focus on the current plan to spend billions of dollars rebuilding Ontario's ten remaining reactors."
Plans to rebuild reactors at Darlington have already passed through an expedited assessment.
Cost analyses on rebuilding the reactors vary wildly, but if the difficulties of refurbishing units in Pickering and other Canadian jurisdictions are any indication, Ontarians might be in for some pocketbook punishment if the Liberal or PCs implement their plans.
"The Liberal government has given the ok to rebuild reactors at the Darlington and Bruce nuclear stations without a cost estimate or a public review. The gas plant scandal has gotten lots of attention since the last election, but it'll end up being small change compared to the nuclear fiascos coming our way."
Steve Cornwell is an MA candidate at York University. He is interested in the interactions of social movements, science and technology. Steve has worked on energy issues with Greenpeace Canada, Environmental Defense, and Safe and Green Energy Peterborough. Follow Steve Cornwell on Twitter @steve_cornwell
Photo: flickr/Jason Spaceman