When you find yourself in a hole stop digging.
People get so wrapped in their own activities that they don’t see the wider picture. We are all guilty of that to some extent. Scientists and engineers in the nuclear industry tend to view situations in terms of technical problems and this is true of the Bruce DGR project. However, the decision to proceed will be made primarily for political and economic reasons as it should be.
Let’s consider economics first. How much will this DGR cost? We’ve haven’t built one in this country yet. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has been conducting a well-planned transparent process eventually leading to establishing a DGR for the burial of used nuclear fuel but construction is still decades in the future. Funding for this DGR has been and will continue to be raised over many years by a small added charge to electricity rates.
The Bruce DGR is another matter. It will be funded by additional taxes and/or electricity charges to Ontarians o is let’s try to estimate its costs. The used fuel DGR planned by NWMO has an estimated cost of $18 billion but $10 billion of that is for transportation giving construction, closure, monitoring costs of about $8 billion. OPG estimated about $2.1 billion for its DGR in a 2012 letter based on a consultant’s estimate from 2004. Multiplying by pi (Blackett’s rule of nuclear estimates) gives $6.6 billion. The recent Niagara tunnel excavation was completed in 2013 only four years behind schedule and only 50% over budget but this OPG project was hydroelectric and not nuclear. The US experience also may help. Building the US Yucca Mountain DGR planned for used nuclear fuel cost $15 billion to when work was stopped although it may be restarted. Estimates indicate that WIPP, the US DGR that OPG held up as an example until its accidents earlier this year, has burned up about $5.5 billion to date and total costs are estimated around $9 billion far exceeding its original estimate of $440 million. Based on the foregoing, my nominal estimate for the Bruce DGR is $6-8 billion. That’s a lot of money for an optional project.
As pointed out many times in this blog, the government of Ontario has complete control over OPG. The Liberal party of Ontario has a solid majority mandate to be that government for the next four years. However, in the recent election all the constituencies along the eastern shore of Lake Huron voted for the opposition Progressive Conservative party including Huron-Bruce where the DGR would be located. It’s inconceivable that the Liberals would allow a tasty multi-billion dollar chunk of make-work pork to go to the Kincardine area simply to please its citizen who voted against them. It just makes no political sense and for that reason alone the DGR project is a non-starter.
The Ontario government is faced with a scary financial deficit. They’re looking to cut budgets in the face of the pressing needs to replace $400 billion worth of crumbling infrastructure such as roads, bridges, public housing, transit, sewers and a multitude of other essential replacements and repairs. Although it is not in that category of down-to earth rebuilding, it is arguable that OPG’s Darlington refurbishment project would provide economic stimulus especially to preserve the high-value high-tech nuclear industry. Most of the companies associated with refurbishment are located in Liberal suburban or urban ridings including Darlington itself. Personally I think refurbishment keeps the Canadian nuclear industry alive preserving the nuclear option for the future.
It is predictable there will be savings from deep staff cuts at OPG as it goes from the current ten reactors to four by 2020. It is also likely that OPG’s scandalously lavish pension plan (the company contributes four dollars for each employee dollar) will be scaled down. An independent committee on government assets has also just recommended that OPG be split into separate hydroelectric and nuclear parts. The next stage could well be leasing the nuclear part to Bruce Power who would much better manage OPG’s nuclear assets.
The projected cuts at OPG will make it more likely the refurbishment projects (at least the first reactor) will go forward provided they stay on schedule and on budget. The refurbishment budget is in the order of $15 billion an amount, if history is any guide, will be substantially over run. The DGR project would add a further $6-8 billion dollar project (assuming no cost overruns) on top of refurbishment. There’s no way the cash-strapped Ontario government is going to allow that. The taxpayers of Ontario will be made to pay for these additional nuclear program costs either through higher electricity bills (an increasing barrier to attracting new manufacturing to the province) or through higher taxes, both unappealing politically.
OPG senior management claim there is a “business case” for the DGR compared to the costs of continued above-ground storage. (One might question the real-world business experience of OPG senior management?) The documentation around the project shows the DGR advantage is thin even using low-balled construction costs. This margin would completely disappear when the usual overruns appear. Some may think I’m being too hard on OPG to which I would reply it’s because they have had such an abysmal track record for not being able to bring nuclear projects in on time and on budget.
As explained in a previous post the Bruce DGR is not needed. A feasible solution is to leave the low-level operating waste in above-ground storage where it is now for few a hundred years after which its radioactivity levels will have decayed to a few percent of its initial level. At that point it could be safely placed in a well-designed land fill. The intermediate level waste, consisting mainly of used metal reactor parts arising from refurbishment and decommissioning, could also be left in above-ground storage as it is now or it could be buried in a designated section of the NWMO DGR eventually to be constructed for used nuclear fuel hopefully at a site far from important bodies of water.
My advice to OPG is to stop digging and abandon the Bruce DGR project in the face of the compelling economic and political reasons why it is simply not going to be allowed to happen.