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Japan's nuclear crisis dampens Ontarians' enthusiasm for new reactors

Only a few days ago, Dalton McGuinty sounded about as gung-ho on nuclear energy as any government leader since the Chernobyl disaster.

"The federal government's process to sell AECL has put our nuclear industry into a stall," the Ontario Premier told his audience at the provincial Liberals' annual fundraising dinner last Wednesday. "Ottawa needs to understand: Ontario's nuclear industry is an important part of Canada's energy advantage. We both need to be committed to its future, and the 55,000 jobs it represents today."

A few days, however, can be a very long time - especially if they involve the worst nuclear crisis in decades. With Japan struggling to contain meltdowns at three different nuclear plants following last Friday's devastating earthquake, Mr. McGuinty stands to be a little more guarded the next time the subject comes up.

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Nuclear power accounts for about half of Ontario's supply mix, and the province's two leading political parties want to keep it that way. As such, both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives will remain committed to building new reactors to replace aging ones - a process that has been slowed by the ownership issues around Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the likely manufacturer, which has been in limbo for a couple of years.

But that new build might now be slowed further still, as the province shifts its focus from expedience to safety, and is less inclined to exert public pressure on Ottawa to get the AECL deal done.

While maintaining that "there is a need to replace over the next decade what currently exists," a senior government official acknowledged that what has happened in Japan will "throw another element into the discussion around the environmental assessment."

That assessment is scheduled to begin next week in Clarington - home to the Darlington nuclear plant, where new reactors are expected to be built once it's sorted out who's building them. And whereas it had previously seemed more like a formality, the public hearings will now attract considerable attention, placing pressure on the government to take additional safety precautions.

The Liberals also now appear to see some political value in moving slowly, which allows them to make hay of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak's recent pledge to stop the "dithering and delays" he claims have held up the new build. The Tories, according to the provincial official, want to "cut corners" - a fairly strong accusation, given what's in the news.

Meanwhile, the third-party NDP - whose continued suspicion of all things nuclear has tended to seem a little quaint - may now get more traction with the issue. The New Democrats have the luxury of not having to provide an especially credible explanation of what they would prefer instead, since they're unlikely to form government in the foreseeable future. But there should be some fear to be mongered, if that's their inclination.

It should go without saying that Ontario, which has less risk of a major earthquake, does not face the same safety issues as Japan. Nor does it rely on the same nuclear technology. But that doesn't change the fact that the image of nuclear power is taking a big hit, evoking memories of earlier disasters that previously gave it a bad name.

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The volatility doesn't really threaten Ontario's long-term dependence on nuclear, since there are few other viable options. But because of that dependence, further delays in the new build could pose major supply problems, if a rise in demand coincides with the existing infrastructure aging out.

There's also the matter of those jobs Mr. McGuinty was talking about. Provincial Liberals have previously lamented the federal Conservatives' apparent indifference to Ontario's long-established nuclear industry, and privately they still might. But it will likely be a while before the Premier tries again to score political points by publicly calling Ottawa out on it.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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