The Ongoing Renewal of Ontario’s Nuclear Energy Generators

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has been in the process of replacing critical components of its Darlington Nuclear Station since 2016. This refurbishment process, which will require the replacement of the feeder pipes – the pipes which carry the coolant to cool the nuclear fuel — and the reloading of fuel into all of its four nuclear units, is expected to extend Darlington’s operating life by 30 years or more.

According to OPG’s latest project update, which was issued in October 2019, the refurbishment process is still expected to be on budget ($12.8 billion) and on time (scheduled for completion by 2026). This project is being undertaken by a joint venture between SNC Lavalin and Aecon Group.

Recently, OPG announced that the refurbishment of its Unit 2 was 90% complete. Unit 2 is now expected to return to full service in the second quarter of 2020, once the related commissioning activities are completed. Since there are four units in total to be refurnished and only one unit has been completed, the refurbishment process is expected to take another six years.

As Ontario Power Generation prepares to return Darlington’s Unit 2 to service and then to commence the refurbishment of its Unit 3, OPG is experiencing a shortage of skilled trade workers such as boilermakers, millwrights or welders.

At the annual Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships conference in Toronto in November, Carla Carmichael, VP, Project Assurance & Commercial Management, Darlington Refurbishment Project, OPG, emphasized that going forward, this labour shortage is expected to become even more acute and have a greater impact on the Darlington refurbishment project because of the time required to train and hire more skilled trade workers.

The timing of the Darlington refurbishment project is being coordinated with the requirements and maintenance of the province’s other nuclear generating facilities. Bruce Power, Ontario’s largest nuclear power facility will undertake a similar refurbishment plan for six of its not yet refurbished units 3 to 8. This more massive undertaking (than Darlington) will start in 2020 and cost $13 billion. The completion of the Darlington Nuclear Station’s refurbishment will occur a couple of years after the decommissioning of OPG’s Pickering Nuclear Station. The Pickering facility will stop generating electricity around the year 2024. After its commercial operations cease, the Pickering station will first be placed in a “safe storage” state and will then be eventually decommissioned.

In recent years, nuclear power has supplied Ontario power consumers with almost 60% of their electricity. The Ontario government’s commitment to refurbish reactors at both Darlington and Bruce shows the province believes nuclear energy – with its minimal greenhouse gas emissions and small land footprint – is not only good for the environment, but also good for ratepayers. This direction in provincial energy policy was reinforced by the recent cancellation by the Ontario government of renewable energy contracts.

Nuclear power is one of the lowest cost sources of power for the Ontario electricity grid. In Ontario’s power mix, only hydroelectric power has a lower cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) than nuclear power does. Gas and wind are almost twice as expensive per kWh than nuclear, and solar is nearly ten times as expensive.

Nuclear power not only lowers electricity prices; it also stabilizes them. This aspect is important to both consumers and business owners who cannot withstand sudden fluctuations in their utility costs. This price stability is due to the fact that uranium makes up only about 30% of the cost of nuclear power, which means that an increase in the cost of uranium would have only a small impact on the price of nuclear power. In contrast, fuel costs for coal, natural gas, and oil production constitute approximately 80% of the production costs, which makes the price of electricity generated from fossil fuels more volatile.

In addition to providing low cost electricity, nuclear power plants create economic benefits and well-paying jobs. According to an independent study conducted the Conference Board of Canada, the Darlington Refurbishment Project and the subsequent 30 more years of station operation, are expected to generate a total of $89.9 billion in economic benefits for Ontario and create 14,200 jobs annually.

Besides playing a significant role in strengthening Ontario’s economy, nuclear energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions. An independent report, prepared by Intrinsik Environmental Sciences, concluded that the continued operation of Darlington Nuclear to 2055 would take the equivalent of two million cars off Ontario’s roads annually.

Since its commissioning in the early nineties, Darlington has produced one-fifth of the province’s electricity. With the completion of its refurbishment, Darlington will continue to play a major role in supplying Ontario’s energy.

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