Why not the CANDU- 6?

“The best way to skin a bear is to skin a bear”

I’m told the foregoing is an aboriginal proverb that points out the virtues of the direct approach to problems.  To be direct we need to be absolutely clear about the objective of building new reactors in Canada. Clearly the aim is to supply much needed electricity for the nation. It is not the development and testing of new reactor types such as the ACR-1000.  

If governments decide that the best course is to construct Canadian reactors for domestic use then I strongly believe the CANDU-6 is now a much better bet than the ACR-1000.

The CANDU-6 has been the workhorse of the AECL fleet for the last 25 years. It’s a tried and tested design with good performance that’s been successfully built and operated in New Brunswick, Quebec, Korea (4), Rumania (2), and China (2). The last CANDU-6’s were built in time frames in the order of five years and (miraculously for the nuclear industry) on budget. This reactor is now called the EC-6, Enhanced CANDU-6, and I can only hope that this renaming is mostly for marketing purposes and the fundamentally robust design is there. 

 The CANDU-6 is an unmitigated AECL success story achieved well before the MAPLE disaster and without the uncertainties of the ACR-1000.

Three of the first CANDU-6’s (in NB, Korea and just announced in Quebec) are now undergoing refurbishment. This means that the technical knowledge, personnel with necessary skills and the supply chain for this reactor type are all currently available domestically and ready for new construction. Furthermore, the design has been licensed by the CNSC for many years and recent environmental assessments related to refurbishment projects have been done.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that several CANDU-6 reactors could be quickly put in place using only Canadian resources.

I simply don’t understand why a small province like New Brunswick would want to go through the long and painful process of bringing the first ACR-1000 on line particularly with the risks raised by the MAPLE fiasco. Why not just build a second CANDU-6 beside the current one now being refurbished? There are so many obvious advantages in terms of operations, maintenance, training and so forth.  Needless to say there’s no way that Generation III+ reactor projects would be feasible in Alberta or Saskatchewan.

As for Ontario, the McKinsey report said “[the differences in life time costs] are not enough to rule out a contending design as fundamentally disadvantaged — save the EC6, which would not benefit from the same economies of scale as its Generation III+ competitors.” My feeling is that the report underestimates the longer times and higher costs associated with bringing Generation III+ reactors into service. In my opinion they’ve got it wrong.

As for the argument that Canada needs to successfully build and operate an ACR-1000 at home so it can export them, that falls under the category of nuclear R&DD and not electricity supply. Assuming, of course, that there is any export market left after the domestic demonstration is done. AECL may want to continue developing the ACR-1000 which would be OK for the future. For the present, let’s build CANDU-6’s.

The one problem I can see with is strategy is the heavy water supply issue discussed previously on this blog.    



Why Generation III+?

“The best is the enemy of the good”

Voltaire’s comment certainly applies to big engineering projects like reactors. Engineers love to fiddle with designs to improve them in order to make them the best.  That’s just an instinct they have. What often happens is that large numbers of design changes ripple out to impact so many parts of the design that an entirely  different product is the end result. The old slogan “Leave well enough alone” should be prominently posted in all engineering offices.

Engineers like to frame this as the “evolution” of an existing design. You may have started with something that worked well and now you have something new and unknown which may or may not perform.

The three competitors for Ontario’s new reactors are all Generation III+ reactors meaning that they are based on but evolved from their predecessors. Very large investments are necessary to bring these designs to fruition.  Right now AREVA and Westinghouse are in the process of ironing out the bugs in their EPR and the AP1000 reactors in Finland, France, China and the US soon. 

The issue is should Canada go through the long and expensive process needed to make the ACR-1000, a Generation III+ reactor, a reality?

The shakeout of the ACR-1000 will have to done domestically with the cooperation of a Canadian utility willing to share the technical and financial risks.  I don’t see any Canadian utility willing or able to do it. My sense is that OPG wouldn’t want to do it and Bruce Power would have to get permission from its landlord, OPG, to be involved. In spite of the noises made by New Brunswick Power, they are too small to host a totally new reactor type and Hydro Quebec is also too small in the nuclear sense. Trying to develop the ACR-1000 in Alberta or Saskatchewan where there is no nuclear plant experience whatever  is totally unrealistic in my opinion.  

An even knottier problem is whether the capability exists in Canada to pioneer a new Generation III+ reactor.  I don’t see the required strength in depth, creativity and leadership in today’s AECL, its subcontractors and our domestic utilities. The MAPLE fiasco, the NRU regulatory debacle, the MDS lawsuit and recent reports of poor tracking by AECL of radioactive material in the Bruce project have undermined my own confidence in AECL. I suspect these problems have also had a negative impact on employee morale.  To be fair chronic underfunding and shifting priorities by a succession of federal governments appear to have significantly eroded AECL over the past two decades and it is no longer the very strong organization that built the original CANDU’s.

It also appears that the refurbishment projects undertaken at Bruce, in New Brunswick and Korea may have over stretched Canada’s nuclear talent.  From where I sit, I see some excellent young engineers going into the nuclear industry but there aren’t nearly enough of them.  

Personally, I have concerns about whether Canada, and in particular AECL, have the resources necessary to independently realize a new Generation III+ reactor like the ACR-1000.  

If that’s the case then the question is why not build CANDU-6 reactors instead? I’ll discuss that in my next post. 

It’s the Ontario thought police again!

In the previous post, I talked about this week’s Oliver-Twist-like performance by Team CANDU which involved putting out their bowl for more money from the federal government before the “meal” had even started. Interestingly, there have been reports in the media that the Ontario government has been rapping their knuckles because by asking for financial guarantees, Team CANDU members are violating Ontario’s edict to have no discussion of the reactor purchase by the bidders. Banning public discussion on an investment of 10’s of billions of dollars that will affect Ontarians’ lives for decades to come is completely unconscionable to me. The Ontario government claims this is to be “fair” to the bidders but I find this a very questionable motive because it places the interests of AREVA, Westinghouse and AECL above those of the people it was elected to serve.  Maybe they really mean it would be much less trouble to make the choice of reactor in a back room at Queens Park because public input would be too troublesome. Nevertheless, I fearlessly predict Ontario will eventually stage some sort of half-hearted “public consultation” for cosmetic purposes and will, of course, ignore any output from it. All of this is certainly not fair to the public and that’s why I started this blog and that takes me full circle. (Rant over) 

ACR-1000 Cost Overruns Already?

Team CANDU, the consortium formed to construct the ACR-1000, is asking the federal government to cover cost overruns on ACR-1000 construction years before even the first shovel goes in the ground.  Wow, is that ever a vote of confidence in the design!

Like many others, I had the impression that Team CANDU had sufficient financial weight of its own to cover any budget slippage.   Surely industrial heavy weights such as SNC-Lavalin, Babcock & Wilcox Canada, and GE-Hitachi Canada ought to be able to absorb some of the budget overrun. AECL, the other Team CANDU partner, is an agency of the federal government and at least theoretically has access to the huge resources of the feds.

If Team CANDU is issued a blank check by the feds, apparently what they want, what incentive will they have to stay on budget? It looks like an open-ended cash-for-life deal. An unwillingness to take any risk would tell me they have no tangible commitment to the reactor.

Team CANDU complains that Westinghouse and AREVA have government subsidies and that makes them favoured. Aside from the fact that AECL, a federal government agency is doing all the development and design of the ACR-1000, the real problem is that AREVA‘s EPR and Westinghouse’s AP1000 are so much closer to realization than the ACR-1000. Chances are the wrinkles in AECL’s two competitors will all be worked out in other countries and at no expense to Canadians before construction even starts on the first ACR-1000. Nothing in the way of federal subsidization can make up for that gap. 

The financial model that I would prefer is firstly that the bid price accepted by Ontario be realistic. (It’s necessary to state this because Ontario Power Authority tosses around prices of $3 billion per reactor, low balling by a factor of around two.) Let’s say the actual bid price is about $5 billion for an ACR-1000. As first of a kind construction, it’s likely that it would be over budget by at least 50%, giving $7.5 billion as the true cost and even that’s being very optimistic.

In order to be credible Team CANDU must absorb some of the inevitable loss on the first one built. For example, a billion or two of the overrun would be a reasonable fee for the experience gained especially when divided between the five large corporations. Otherwise Team CANDU is just making political noise to get a risk-free government subsidy for an open ended project.   There’s nothing unusual about that and we Canadians have seen that many times before but it just doesn’t bode well for the fate of the ACR-1000.

Sad to say AECL’s abandonment of the MAPLE reactors raises a finite risk that the first ACR-1000 might never be successfully completed.   I’d like to see the Team CANDU partners take on some of that risk. Personally, I wouldn’t give Team CANDU a nickel unless they ante up a sizeable chunk of their own cash.