“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.