There’s a bit of a, whatchamacallit, an election coming down in Ontario. So far a number of issues have come up (e.g. schools), but the governing Liberals’ plan to increase nuclear power construction in Toronto isn’t one of them. It’s a shame, because a number of recent articles in the Toronto Star show how this plan is being undermined before it’s even gotten off the ground.

First of all, there’s the problem that the existing reactors are delivering sub-par performance this summer. The reactors at both Pickering and Bruce have been shut down unexpectedly, leading to a double-digit increase in coal generation. Yech. The plan has been to run the existing reactors to the end of their lives and refurbish or replace them, but with the existing problems it may be necessary to do so early — or, if replacement is impossible, shut them down and rely more on … what, coal?

Replacing the existing reactors, much less building new ones, may take longer than planned. As a third article makes clear, the nuclear industry is already stretched to the limit with existing construction, with a six-year waiting list for some parts and uncertainty over costs — or rather, the only certainty being rising costs.

A decision on what technologies to build, and which reactors to refurbish/replace, is due early next year. The smart money is on AECL (the Canadian company that designed the CANDU reactors), but the Ontario government is playing coy, implying that somehow, tens of thousands of Ontario jobs won’t be enough to guarantee government spending if a foreign company — say, Areva or GE — can offer a better deal. This is almost certainly an empty threat, but it might be a useful way for the government to keep a whip over AECL.

That’s the final point: AECL has a history of huge cost overruns in Canada (ironically, AECL has a better record overseas than it does in it’s own homeland), so you might think that plans for a major new nuclear purchase by Canada’s most powerful province would be kind of a big thing. But so far at least, no dice. The two parties that stand a chance of forming a government agree on the nuclear expansion — the only daylight between them is on the issue of a coal phaseout — and the parties on the left are too small to push the issue.  It’s going to be tough, in the absence of some external shock, to bring the issue in to the debate.