When it comes to building nuclear power plants, fluctuations in political thinking and public opinion are crucial. Not long ago, Canada's nuclear industry found itself facing a crisis of confidence. The last Canada Deuterium Uranium, or CANDU, reactors to be built in Canada, at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, east of Toronto, were ordered in the late 1970s. Its four units were to be completed by 1988 at a cost of $5 billion. Instead, they cost more than $14 billion and weren't completed until 1993, hammering Ontario deep into electricity-related debt. Other CANDU reactors have since been shut down long before their manufacturer's best-before date. Attempts to refurbish them have sometimes come in significantly over budget and behind schedule, as with rebuilt reactors at Pickering A Nuclear Power Station.
Tom Adams, executive director of Toronto-based Energy Probe, is a frequent energy commentator and a vocal critic of the nuclear industry. Just after the blackout that left much of North America in the dark in 2003, Adams told Canadian Business he was certain no new nuclear plants would be built in Canada because the experiences at Darlington, Pickering and other CANDU sites had been so bad. Today, he's not so sure. "Politicians are so excited, it's tough to say where things are going," he says. "There is a possibility they could overlook the record and the costs and just barge on forward."
The change is also felt at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which designs and manufactures CANDU reactors. David Torgerson, AECL's senior vice-president and chief technology officer, says governments "have realized that there is really no other option for large-scale energy production that can meet their requirements."