More Glory Days for Chalk River?

For reasons that don’t matter now I was prompted to think about what will happen to the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) while on a cruise ship passing Devil’s Island.  Unlike that place I have fond memories of CRL.

When I arrived in 1968 CRL was still in its Glory Days.  Many excellent scientific programs continued notably at the NRU reactor and much engineering R&D was done in support of the newly hatched CANDU reactor concept. CRL scientists and engineers were very active in the governance of Canada’s learned societies and were prominent at national and international conferences. CRL was recognized as an incubator of highly qualified personnel and many left to become university faculty.

At that time W.B. Lewis, the father of the CANDU reactor, was promoting the ING project at CRL. ING was to be a giant accelerator producing the large neutron flux necessary to make fissile fuel to top up the thermal breeder capabilities of CANDU. The idea was that ING supporting a fleet of CANDU’s would eliminate the possibility that running out of the then known uranium resources would thwart the great expansion of nuclear power envisaged by Lewis and many others. ING was cancelled by Pierre Trudeau when he came to power that same year. It is arguable whether ING could ever have been made to work but in retrospect the cancellation of ING took away the last future vision for CRL.

When I left in 1996 the decline of CRL was reaching its climax in a process of decay that had started in the mid 1960’s. The steady erosion over the foregoing years culminated in the cancellation or transfer of the best scientific programs under the government program review process of that era.  A dismal succession of weak and ineffectual leaders tried to preserve the labs through dubious commercialization  schemes and strived to eliminate “curiosity oriented research” because they thought it was what the government wanted them to do. The problem was that most of the management simply didn’t understand how the Ottawa bureaucracy worked and those who did understand didn’t stick around enough to make a difference.

Of course the CRL site cannot be closed.  We’ve made such a mess we couldn’t possibly leave it in its current state.   Decommissioning and cleanup activities will go on decades if not centuries and it remains the main site for Canada’s medical and industrial radioactive wastes.

Everyone (except maybe the federal government) has concluded that the only thing that will restore CRL to its former glory is a new world class research reactor to replace NRU.  National laboratories in other countries have thrived on excellent new facilities. The SNS at Oak Ridge, the NIF at Lawrence Livermore, and the Jules Horowitz reactor at Cadarache are recent examples of facilities that have given new purpose to their host national laboratories.

To sell a new reactor it must have a meaningful and nationally important R&D program. The NRU reactor closure scheduled for 2016 will mark the end of isotope production and associated R&D.   Neutron scattering would attract scientists in that field but it’s a relatively small community.  With the Advanced CANDU Reactor thankfully now cancelled there isn’t likely to be much in the way of reactor development going on with the exception of perhaps some EC6 fuel tests and a bit of thorium research.

My own assessment is there is unlikely to be any further significant development of the CANDU concept and more sales of CANDU offshore are improbable. I can’t see any use for a new reactor to support the refurbishment projects now the heart of our nuclear industry. In the last decade or so an increasing nuclear research capability has been developed in Canadian universities and recent events in Saskatchewan for instance show that this trend will continue.  Therefore, if you need people doing R&D at computer screens you don’t need to do it at CRL.  It’s not clear to me what could be done at a new research reactor to justify the large expense in building it.

As for management, some have suggested that a private company could better manage CRL along the same lines as the US national labs. I don’t see that hiring a private company to manage it would contribute much since the strategic vision needs to come from within the government.

My solution would be to return CRL to the National Research Council of Canada (NRCC) fold from which it emerged in its earliest days. I admire NRCC management for skillfully keeping their organization viable and at times thriving for what must now be getting on for a century. They have proven expert at navigating through the shoals of government bureaucracy and they understand the value of R&D and even know how to sell curiosity oriented research to the government. Moving CRL to NRCC is not such a radical solution. The neutron scattering group at CRL has been run by NRCC since the 1990’s and NRCC has even been promoting the need for a new research reactor.

I do hope solutions can be found because there is nothing I’d like to see more than return of CRL to its Glory Days.

The Darlington Refurbishment Plan

A plan is a plan. What kind of a plan? It’s a plan. A plan is a plan. And when you have a good plan, it’s because it’s planned

OK so I’ve revised Jean Chretien’s famous quotation by substituting the word “plan” in place of his word “proof” to illustrate my point that politicians say the strangest things. The one I want to comment on is from the Ontario Minister of Energy Chris Bentley who is quoted in the March 1 Toronto Star describing the newly announced OPG contract to produce a $600 million Darlington refurbishment Plan.

 “They can plan down to 30-minute increments to make sure that when the actual refurbishment work starts, they have the right project at the right price according to the right specifications.”

Really?! This is a totally nutty statement for any large and complex engineering project. The Minister claims that the Plan will protect against cost overruns and this justifies the $600 million price tag. With the obfuscation the Ontario government loves so much it’s not clear what exactly the $600 million includes. For example, is it just for the unbelievably detailed half-hourly Plan or does the total cover items such as training for the refurbishers and mock-up facilities for them to practice on? Is it too much to ask whether it includes a plan for how the $600 million will be spent on developing the Plan? Maybe they have a plan for making the plan for the Plan and so on ad infinitum.

On the other hand I have to give them credit for coming up with a brilliant strategy for avoiding cost overruns. It simply consists of not specifying a total project cost for the refurbishment of the Darlington reactors. Perhaps they don’t know this number or do and want to keep it secret. Either way an unknown target cost makes it impossible to identify a cost overrun. Certainly this “the sky’s the limit” concept totally eliminates any future media carping about expenditures.

As I’ve said before, I’m all in favour of refurbishment projects because they are vital to the survival of our nuclear expertise and infrastructure since new build at home or abroad looks to be a long way into the future. However,  all parties need to be accurate in their statements about refurbishment projects.

Fukushima and Reactor Safety – Unknown Unknowns

No technology including nuclear power can be made absolutely safe.

One of the best and well-known historical illustrations of this is the design of the Titanic. The plan incorporated a system of sixteen water- tight compartments that allowed the ship to float if two of the first four were flooded. Thus, the ship should survive any conceivable collision scenario. The media of the time and perhaps the designers talked of an “unsinkable” ship but who could imagine an accident in which the vessel would scrape along an iceberg slitting open six of the forward compartments?

The root of the problem is the “unknown unknowns”. This bit of pentagon-speak nicely sums up the idea that there are accident scenarios that one can’t imagine in advance. I also like the terminology “Black Swans” which I take to mean the same thing and will use that way.

Who could imagine that the operators at Three Mile Island would manually turn off the reactor’s Emergency Core Cooling System? Who could imagine that the Chernobyl operators would drive a reactor with no containment into a parameter region of unstable operation? Who could imagine that the design of the Fukushima power reactors would not withstand the largest possible earthquake and that the emergency power system was vulnerable to inundation?  Unfortunately, the answer is that no one imagined these possibilities and so the last two of these accidents became catastrophes.

It’s not just the big ones. Many other unanticipated nuclear accidents have occurred over the sixty years of nuclear power that avoided disasters with public consequences through the prompt operation of safety systems, skilled operator intervention and plain good luck.

Preliminary accounts of the Fukushima accident s show the importance of two well-known issues of nuclear safety. The first was inadequate redundancy in the fuel cooling systems because the reactor station design was deficient in protecting against earthquakes and tsunamis.   Who could imagine that in seismically active Japan, a country with 120 active volcanoes?  The second was the failure to vent in time the hydrogen generated by fuel exposure although the operators had many hours to do so. The hydrogen mixed with the oxygen from ambient air caused explosions that wrecked buildings and much of the reactor equipment in them further compounding the difficulty of restoring the necessary fuel cooling.  Ironically, the same “hydrogen bubble” was a big concern at Three Mile Island some thirty years before and hydrogen explosions no doubt occurred at Chernobyl.  Who could imagine that the operators would be so indecisive as to bungle hydrogen venting?

It’s easy to second guess and criticize others in hindsight. However, my intention here is not to assign blame for Fukushima but to show that nuclear accidents are fundamentally unavoidable. As history now shows, every once in a while there will be a big nuclear accident when a Black Swan comes to roost. Even the most sanguine unsinkable ship fans can no longer deny that.

When nuclear authorities in Canada and elsewhere say “our reactors are safe” what they really mean is that they have gone through all of their event trees, probabilistic calculations and voluminous safety documents of numerous accident scenarios and found no fault with them. In effect they are saying:  “we have solutions for every accident scenario we have been able to imagine.”  They are sincere in their exhaustive analysis and certainly want no accidents at occur. However, they can make no plausible claim for a process for identifying unknown unknowns. I wish they were more honest by adding these qualifiers to their declarations of safety.

To me this leads to two important conclusions. First, the nuclear industry should recognize publically that serious nuclear accidents will occur from time to time in spite of their best efforts to prevent them. Therefore, nuclear accidents are a price that society has to pay for increasing population growth, high energy consumption and perhaps low-carbon energy as argued in my first posting on Fukushima. Secondly, the public must acknowledge that its expectation of perfect nuclear safety is unrealistic and like any other industrial technology accidents will continue to be a feature of nuclear energy in the future.  I can detect some of that feeling of public acceptance already emerging.

Lake Ontario isn’t Walden Pond and never will be.

ORIGINALLY POSTED June 5, 2011

Fukushima and the Rationale for Nuclear Power

Like everyone else in the nuclear community I have been thinking about the Fukushima nuclear disaster although I went on a month long vacation in the South Pacific when thankfully I didn’t think about it at all.  Since the accident I’ve had a number of media requests to comment but I’ve declined them all in favour of putting down my thoughts in this blog – so here goes.

My first point is that Fukushima doesn’t mean the end of nuclear power.  As the world population increases and an ever larger proportion of it demands the high consumption life style of the developed world there will be a rapidly growing demand for energy, particularly high quality electrical energy. The foregoing plus the low carbon character of nuclear technology dear to the remaining believers in climate change summarize the main arguments in favour of nuclear energy.  I’d say that this reasoning is plausible with due deference to Vaclav Smil’s observation that all energy predictions turn out to be wrong (an idea amply demonstrated, for example, by the energy demand projections of the Ontario Power Authority).

There is another factor that I would call nuclear inertia, namely those jurisdictions most dependent on nuclear power will have the greatest difficulty getting out of it. France is one such jurisdiction with around 80% or more of its electricity generated by nuclear reactors.  There is no obvious way that the French could get out of nuclear energy even if they wanted to.  On the other hand countries such as Switzerland and Italy that have resolved to go non-nuclear in the wake of Fukushima can relatively easily exit the nuclear arena as they have announced they will.  It is even easier for Thailand and Malaysia which were looking at reactors but have now have decided against them.

Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power is by far the most significant for the future of nuclear energy. The issue is not whether the German decision will cause others to drop out in the short term but rather it is whether Germany can succeed in the longer term in shedding its nuclear stations.  If it convincingly shows that it can replace the nuclear share of electricity (20%) by renewables and conservation over the next decade then I’d say the nuclear future in North America and Europe would be clouded.

I believe Germany has a good chance of achieving its goal. It has considerable experience with renewables, a very strong high technology industrial base, and most importantly the political will and public support needed. During the transition period, they can import coal-generated electricity from Poland and ironically nuclear electricity from France if needed. I think the odds are that they will succeed.

In terms of the world outlook, it appears that nuclear power will continue its strong growth in China and India with moderate increases also in Korea and Russia. These countries have concluded that they don’t have any other choice.  Although I’m particularly concerned about issues of the supply chain, quality control and business corruption, all things considered I have no doubt that the nuclear enterprise will continue unabated in Asia.

Looking at our situation in Canada, I don’t see how Ontario could feasibly get out of nuclear in the short term. The government of Ontario has been experimenting with renewables but in my opinion has made a huge blunder by entering into a sole source contract (said to be worth $7 billion) with Samsung apparently aimed at increasing “green” manufacturing in the province.  As with all too many of Ontario’s transactions with business the contract is secret and the opposition parties can’t even find out what it would cost to cancel the contract.  The bottom-line here is that Ontario unlike Germany would be totally incapable of any transition out of nuclear.

The New Brunswick follies continue over the refurbishment of the Point Lepreau reactor and the main issue has now become the content of the contract between AECL and New Brunswick with reference to cost overruns. You guessed it:  the contract is secret. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy to see New Brunswick shafted by its own obsessive secrecy and likely the same will happen to the current Ontario government with regard to the Samsung contract. The only possibility of a Canadian retreat from nuclear power that I think we’ll see in Canada is Quebec will not go ahead with the refurbishment of the Gentilly II reactor and ultimately decommission it. Much of the reason for this decision will be based on the poor performance of the Point Lepreau project with only a small push from Fukushima.

ORIGINALLY POSTED  June 3, 2011

Hello Again

I had a big problem with the original version of this blog when the PHP program was updated and the blog site crashed. This happened near the end of last year. I apologize to my faithful few readers and have fixed the problem by going to gone to a more Word Press related format.

Of course, since then I’ve also thought seriously about whether I wanted to continue it and I concluded that I still have things I’d like to say.  To be honest in converting to a new blog I felt that I should reconstitute the old blog posts not least so readers can catch me in contradictions. I recall reading that there are 30 million blogs out there and maybe those are only the Word Press ones. Nevertheless, I hope that you may find something worth reading on this one.