Nuclear Secrecy Corrodes Public Trust

One of the hard lessons that the nuclear community learned in the 70’s and 80’s was that it must be open, transparent and honest with the public. Using this approach the nuclear industry managed to just survive the accidents, bribery scandals and instances of technical ineptitude during those years. The idea was summed up by the media trainers of the day as “Tell the truth even if it hurts”. It worked.

It appears that this lesson been totally forgotten by the current generation of Canadian nuclear managers.

Here’s a partial list of documents that as far as I know the public hasn’t been allowed to see.

  • The McKinsey report on new reactor purchases commissioned by for the Ontario government
  • The report by AECL to the New Brunswick government on the need for new reactors
  • The consultants report to the NB government commenting on the  foregoing AECL report
  • The report by the Alberta nuclear advisory committee set up by the province
  • Any output (?) from the similar Saskatchewan committee on nuclear power  
  • The National Bank report on the future of AECL  

The only feeble explanation I’ve heard is that the reports have to be kept quiet because they could contain propriety material. I’m sure these documents won’t contain instructions on how to weapons or details of anti-terrorist security systems at the present reactors. So what are they hiding – nothing much is my guess.

The so-called proprietary information that must be keep confidential according the industry is probably  their sales pitches: a reactor supplier says it can built one of its reactors for X dollars (not including cost overruns) that will produce electricity at Y dollars (if they can get it to work).  The italics are of course mine intended to reflect the cynicism I feel about the lies salesmen of all kinds tell to move their products. Oh sure, the nuclear types will blame all this secrecy on governments and no doubt the governments will insist that it’s the industry that wants confidentiality. It’s more likely that neither group wants to deal publically with the issues the reports raise but avoiding the issues is a huge mistake.

Fortunately, the usual suspects in the anti-nuclear movement are snoozing through all of this or else frittering away their time on pointless attacks on university research reactors. Even better, anti-nuclear politicians seem to have disappeared off the radar. Public support is the best it’s been in years. These factors are creating an excellent climate for the growth of nuclear power.

So what does the nuclear industry do in face of its great good fortune on finally having a positive climate for the first time in decades?  Well it seems industry executives are reverting to the “father knows best”, “the public is too stupid to understand us” and “don’t bother us, we know best how to spent $10-15 billion of your dollars” attitudes that have proved so detrimental in the past. Personally, I find it depressing that the industry seems intent on squandering the present goodwill by their contempt for the public. They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

It’s past time that the industry stops hiding behind this pointless secrecy before it erodes the public trust they now enjoy.  


No Nuclear Renaissance in a Recession?

What effect will today’s bad economy have on the nuclear renaissance?

As I see it, any Canadian politician that wants to fund a nuclear Megaproject (actually Gigaproject) in a time of severe recession is going to have a very tough time selling it as part of an economic stimulus package. Rhetoric about ‘building for the future’ or ‘just carrying out plans already made” simply isn’t going to cut it with the public.  Of course, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam are examples of massive US energy projects built during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. However, I think the public perception of nuclear reactors is very different; they don’t have the same image as hard core infrastructure projects that employ large numbers of people. Roads, bridges, water mains, parks, public transit and so forth directly relate much more closely to people’s lives and thus, are a “politically better” use of the large but limited construction capacity in the province.

In Ontario, a multi-billion dollar nuclear project at Darlington doesn’t have the same political attraction as many smaller infrastructure projects spread all the province. Additional new reactors at Bruce and Nanticoke would increase the total costs to the province so much as to counteract any benefits they might bring in terms of geographical spread. The timing of that idea wouldn’t work in any case since these projects are not likely to begin until well after the new Darlington reactors. One could try to spin a single project at Darlington by correctly pointing out that many components would be built in other areas and in many ways the project benefits the whole province.  Nevertheless, justifying the construction of even two new reactors at a total of $10-15 billion would be a very hard sell when compared to the $1.3 billion provincial contribution to the recent Big Three automotive bail out. In fact, the optics is so bad that I doubt any smart politician would even attempt it in a failing economy.

In Alberta the precipitous drop in the price of oil has knocked the bottom out of any idea of building reactors there. The huge oil sands projects that would be very profitable with oil at $140 a barrel are marginal at $40 a barrel and the overheated Alberta economy is cooling fast. I very much doubt that Alberta politicians are going to push new reactors as a cure to the province’s economic problems. My guess is the thinking in Saskatchewan would be similar.

New Brunswick is the exception. We can only assume that news of the recession hasn’t reached there. Recently, the government announced they were going to build not one but two new reactors (ACR-1000s?) A mode of bullish optimism prevails (‘I’ll have what he’s having”) It is said that the new reactors will supply the New England electricity market assumed to be expanding in spite of the current US economic problems. However, as far as I know, the studies (one of them from AECL) justifying this strategy have never seen the public light of day and therefore, we don’t know what the provincial government is really thinking. I suppose New Brunswick is also assuming that the federal government via AECL will back stop the large cost overruns inevitable on first-of-a kind projects.  The feds, however, are already unhappy about running a deficit and I frankly can’t see them being any happier in absorbing New Brunswick’s cost overruns. Of course, if the feds agreed to that , they’d also have to do it for Ontario’s reactor overruns.

My fearless but realistic prediction is that the nuclear industry like every other will have to hunker down and ride out the storm until the economy improves. Certainly routine activities will continue at a dull roar probably including some refurbishment but I can’t see any new-build Gigaproject start-ups. In other words, the nuclear renaissance will be on hold during the years of the recession/depression the world is now experiencing.  Let’s hope for everyone’s sake it will be a short downturn.


What’s happening in the Ontario reactor competition?

I saw an interview with George Smitherman, the Ontario Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, on TVO last night.

As the person in charge of the Ontario reactor competition, he said that Westinghouse was still in the competition in spite of some of his senior officials previously saying it was out. I think the confusion arose because Westinghouse wants to sell its technology rather than constructing and delivering a fully operational reactor itself.  The construction and commissioning would be done by some other firm. This is the pattern Westinghouse seems to be following in their other sales. In China the builders are local electrical utilities that have purchased the AP1000 technology and in the US the constructing partner is the Shaw Power group, at least for the Florida reactors.  

In my opinion this is a very smart way to do business but probably not very attractive to the Ontario government since the only local reactor construction capability resides in Team CANDU, another contestant. Perhaps Bruce Power might attempt constructing an AP1000 with the technology supplied by Westinghouse; they certainly have reactor refurbishment experience but as far as I know they have never built a reactor. OPG no longer has a reactor construction capability and instead concentrates on operations.  In my previous post on the AP1000 I expressed my admiration for this reactor design but I also mentioned rumours that Westinghouse was not all that engaged by the Ontario competition preferring instead to concentrate on the US and Chinese markets.  This may also be true.

The Minister rejected the idea of constructing one each of two of the competing designs which I agree would be impractical. He also talked about announcing the decision “at the end of the spring”. While there may be a decision at that point, for reasons I’ll mention in my next post I don’t believe there will be any significant expenditures until well after the decision.

To me the most interesting thing he had to say was in response to the interviewer’s probing about AECL. Although he acknowledged the advantages of awarding the contract to a domestic company, AECL, he implied that the ball was really in the federal government’s court. He had been looking for indications of federal support for AECL but wasn’t seeing any, or enough of them, to satisfy him.

Federal support is the key for AECL winning the bid, in particular would the feds ante up for the inevitable cost overruns? Probably not in today’s economic climate. Perhaps, the feds are planning some kind of ‘triple play’ whereby, for example, AECL is sold to the winning bidder, Westinghouse or AREVA. The winner would at one stroke obtain a skilled local labour force and the CANDU repair business. AECL would be revitalized as a division of a big multinational with deep pockets and the feds would finally succeed in riding themselves of AECL after all these years.  

By the way, what ever happened to the National Bank report on AECL’s future?





Canada’s Isotope Mess

In early December there was another round of isotope woes with NRU closing down for repairs but only for a relatively short period this time. Every time there’s a problem with creaky old NRU, AECL is criticised for its failure to replace NRU with the ill-fated MAPLE reactors. When NRU finally goes down for good there is no plan for future isotope production. As long as there are isotope supply problems, nobody is going to forget the MAPLE fiasco – it will keep on damaging AECL’s reputation in terms of building new reactors.

In my opinion, trying to extend the working lifetime of NRU past 2011 is not a good option assuming it continues to run until then. Patchwork repairs are not going to cut it and I suspect dismantling NRU in any serious way would reveal an increasing number of problems to be fixed. My feeling is that NRU needs to be completely rebuilt from the ground up to be safe in the future. This must involve replacing the vessel which would mean at least a year, but probably more like two to three years of downtime. If NRU were down for the years needed to refurbish it in a serious way, other arrangements for supplying fresh isotopes would need to be in place. (Since the isotopes have a very limited lifetime (short half-life) you can’t put aside a surplus supply for future use.)  However, if such alternate arrangements for isotopes were indeed possible that begs the question why refurbish NRU in the first place? I think a realistic guess at the cost would be in the $1 billion range.

The economics of isotope production used to be very poor for producers. For example, some years ago it was said that nuclear medicine tests had a mark up of a factor of 100 i.e. the material for one test was supplied at $3 and patients were charged $300.  It seems that for many years AECL (i.e. the Canadian taxpayer) subsidized medical radioisotopes for much of the world. Recently, it was reported that a US company is the distributor for Canadian isotopes in both the US and Canada and apparently gives no preference to Canadian patients.  If true, that’s a real shame because I suspect there is still a Canadian subsidy of some kind.

A big problem for isotope producers is that the technetium is produced from a molybdenum fission product that comes from the irradiation of enriched uranium targets in a reactor (NRU in this case). This leads to a very messy waste problem. Once the molybdenum has been extracted all the other highly radioactive fission products in solution must be safely stored in large high-quality double-walled tanks. Safe means that care has to be taken that unwanted fission reactions don’t occur in these tanks. Every so often a new tank has to be built at a cost of many millions of dollars. All of this is technically possible and indeed has been done without serious incident for many years. The problem is that the wastes from isotope production have to be looked after for a very long time in a rather expensive manner.

An additional costly overhead is the security needed to safeguard the enriched uranium targets. This was going to be a double whammy with MAPLE which used (or was going to use) enriched fuel. (I read a report a few months ago that this fuel hadn’t been returned to the US in a timely manner; I hope this has now been done.) What company or university could afford to build a fortress-like complex and mount a round-the-clock security force to protect potential weapons materials? The answer, of course, is there are no takers.

Most of the cobalt-60 for cancer therapy and sterilization of medical supplies is or could be produced in power reactors and is not involved in the NRU issue.  The problem concerns mainly the diagnostic tests based on technetium. 

At the moment no one questions the assumption that large amounts of diagnostic medical isotopes will continue to be needed in future.   Perhaps, the nuclear medicine doctors should moderate their consumption of isotopes and use them only when there is no other test available. I’ve heard it whispered by other physicians that there are indeed non-nuclear alternate diagnostic tests that are just as effective as some of the nuclear tests. If true, the number of nuclear procedures in the “nice to have” category could be reduced drastically.  I can’t assess the truth of these assertions but they would be worth looking at by a non-biased (non-nuclear) group of doctors. This might go some way to solving the problem.

Many groups have probably tried to make business cases for isotope production. The fact that no other organization either US or Canadian has stepped forward to produce isotopes is a good indicator that there just isn’t a plausible business case. Furthermore, as a producer if your isotope supply system goes down you get pilloried by the nuclear medicine community, pressured by politicians, vilified by the press and generally accused of lack of humanity. It’s a Public Relations nightmare no sane company would want to get itself into however “attractive” they might consider the economics. That’s why there’s no ‘white knight’ on the isotope horizon with an easy solution.

The Blog Continues in 2009

Recently, I’ve been engaged in some interesting nuclear projects that, on top of end-of-term teaching obligations, have kept me away from blogging for a while. I’m just getting back to it and lots of interesting developments have happened over the last couple of months including a world economic collapse but more of that later.

In Canada, we’ve had another isotope panic but one much smaller than the one a year or so ago. Ontario has again postponed its nuclear choice because it appears the government can’t obtain price guarantees from the reactor vendors. It’s also not clear whether Westinghouse is in or out of the competition. The fact we don’t know for sure is just yet another manifestation of Ontario’s penchant for secrecy in nuclear matters.

What’s going on with the CANDU refurbishment projects in New Brunswick and at Bruce? There are indications in the press that there are cost overruns but, if true, their magnitude is not yet known.  

In the international arena, new reactor construction looks to be going full steam ahead in China with four Westinghouse AP1000’s and two Areva EPR’s being built. A UK newspaper reported in early December that EDF is going to build 4 new reactors (EPR’s?) in Britain over the next twelve years at a cost of £ 22 billion; this works out to about $9.7 billion CDN per reactor. While this cost per reactor was probably realistic before the current economic crisis, recently key world commodity prices have fallen sharply (e.g. copper from $4 /lb to $1.5/lb) and I would have expected some reduction from that direction. On the other hand it seems US utilities are apparently having doubts about building new according to my quick glance at a story in the latest Scientific American that I need to read in detail. India has been rehabilitated as an unrepentant nuclear weapons state.

The bottom line is that there are lots of topics that I intend to discuss and which I hope you will find interesting.  As always I appreciate you comments.

Finally, I wish you, my faithful readers, a very Happy New Year