The Pickering hearings – some last comments on evacuation, GE-Hitachi and Orangeville

The treatment of PSA (Probabilistic Safety Assessment) was much better at the Pickering hearings than at the Darlington hearings of last December. In earlier posts I criticized the cavalier way that OPG and CNSC staff tossed around PSA probabilities as representing accident probabilities. I’m happy to say that there was much less of that this time. There was still confusion about limits, goals, objectives and other associated terminology but I had the impression that the problems were more in communications than in fact. I was also heartened to hear CNSC staff acknowledge that unknown unknowns (Black Swans) were the main lesson of Fukushima – “expect the unexpected”. Being a very conservative organization OPG still tends to cling to the dubious use of PSA (or PRA) for overall accident frequency prediction over and above its legitimate value in organizing and focusing safety related issues.

Evacuation plans were taken seriously at these hearings. Six months earlier at the Darlington hearings the fundamental questions concerned the existence of a plan and who was in charge. At the Pickering hearings much credit should go to intervenors from the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) who presented detailed work they had done on evacuation issues. This was useful and contributed both to the hearing process and also on focusing those responsible for detailed planning on the nuclear aspects. Emergency plans are now designed to accommodate generic accidents of all types but there will be problems specific to nuclear emergencies that might not be covered. There was significant drilling down into specific aspects such as the distribution of KI pills, traffic patterns in terms of radioactive deposition, and suitability of building types for sheltering from radioactivity. The latter are issues specific to nuclear accidents and currently not well covered in the broader plans of the various emergency organizations.

Because the Pickering reactors are about 30 km from downtown Toronto this topic was very sobering indeed. A highlight of the hearings for me was an intervention by a person who talked about her experiences as an evacuee during hurricane Hugo in 1989. This put a human face on what might otherwise be considered a theoretical discussion. The consequences of a “doomsday” type accident at Pickering would be unthinkable and I believe most people both within and outside the nuclear industry would agree that it’s time to close down the Pickering reactors. The only issue is when.

In contrast to these worthwhile interventions, a few intervenors complained about the GE-Hitachi nuclear fuel operation in Toronto. Aside from being largely irrelevant to the topic of the hearings, it seemed silly to complain about it. First of all, the facility is completely benign and thoroughly inspected with negligible possibility of any accident. Second, it’s been there for about fifty years and anyone moving in since then who objects to it clearly didn’t do their due diligence in discovering its existence before they bought houses in the area. Boiled down they are essentially admitting that they, their real estate agents and lawyers were asleep when they bought. It’s like those people who move in near an airport and then whine about the noise. These intervenors not only are complaining about a non-existent danger but also by doing so they lower neighborhood property values including their own. In my opinion this is just dumb and I have no patience with them.

Arnie Gundersen, former reactor operator turned prominent US anti-nuke, provided comic relief as he argued in a genial way against granting a renewal. He made disparaging comments about CANDU reactors being “an evolutionary dead end” meaning that with the ACR-1000 dead there will not be any more new versions of CANDU after the EC tweak of the CANDU 6. He’s probably correct but it’s still not easy to hear. His main point was that the Pickering reactors were among the oldest still operating in the world. True Pickering units 1 and 4 started in 1971 and 1973 but he was still wrong. They were refurbished (twice for unit 1) and returned to service in 2005 and 2003 respectively and thus, are in better shape than units 5 to 8 which came on line 1983-6 but have not been refurbished.

The fact that a waste disposal site will be needed to store the large volume of radioactive non-fuel bits and pieces arising from refurbishing and later decommissioning Ontario’s reactors was is not a surprise but the ham-fisted way it came out at the Pickering hearings certainly was a surprise. Someone, I believe in an OPG document, casually opined that this site should ideally be equidistant from the reactor stations and just by looking at a map came up with a site near Orangeville. If you don’t believe in coincidences, that town used to be (still is?) the location of an Ontario Hydro training facility and maybe OPG has some land available there for a waste site. Therefore, I would tend to ignore any subsequent back pedalling on this site by OPG.

What a way to introduce Ontario’s third nuclear waste storage site! I assume it would probably be a DGR (Deep Geological Repository). The first waste site is a DGR now under study by a CNSC-appointed committee. In it OPG will bury low and intermediate level waste from reactor operations at the Bruce site. The reason for the location is simply that the Bruce power station was located on Lake Huron for reactor cooling water and OPG owns a lot of land there (now leased by Bruce Power) at an approved nuclear site. Geological justifications were later found to fit these business considerations. Originally OPG planned to build this DGR under the lake but many in Canada and the US got very excited about potential radioactive contamination of the Great Lakes – the source of drinking water for 40 million people. Now they plan to build it near but not under the lake.

The second nuclear waste site is the long-term DGR for high level used nuclear fuel that some communities around Bruce among others in Canada have expressed preliminary interest in hosting. Once again this has provoked the contamination of the Great Lakes issue. Predictably the two DGRs are being confused deliberately by critics pushing the idea that the first will become the second. With Orangeville on the table, it now appears we have three DGRs in play.

I had thought that Bruce Power’s inept handling of its plan to ship contaminated steam generators for recycling was the leading nuclear waste public relations fiasco in the past few years. However, I’ve changed my mind. The casual Orangeville site reveal by OPG at the Pickering hearings was bungling at an even greater level turning Canada’s nuclear waste disposal efforts into a true three ring circus.

The ACR (Advanced CANDU Reactor) is Dead

“….. It’s passed on. This reactor is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s a stiff, bereft of life, it rests in peace.  ……it should be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It’s an ex-reactor!”

Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch is so well loved that it will survive any amount of bowdlerizing by me.  It also serves very well to drive the point home that the ACR is well and truly gone. The only reason for this post is that readers of this blog still seem to have a great interest in the ACR.

It’s no exaggeration to say many in Canada’s nuclear community were relieved to see it die. It combined the worst of both the CANDU and light water reactor worlds but fortunately was only a paper concept.  In fact the general feeling in the last few years of AECL’s reactor division was that the ACR’s only value was employing the people working on it. Otherwise it was an embarrassment they didn’t know how to kill. As I predicted SNC-Lavalin did indeed throw it under the bus and its demise was unlamented except of course in human terms because of job losses. One hopes that most of those laid off were able to find other nuclear positions.

The ACR exists only on the internet and, unlike the few twitches that came after the termination of the Maple reactor program, there is no thought whatever of resuscitating it.

Design problems with AREVA EPR and the Westinghouse AP1000 (Updated March11, 2014)


Update: This is one of the most popular posts on this blog and so deserves an update. The EPR continues to limp along. The Finland EPR is now bogged down in lawsuits and startup is further delayed; the EPR at Flamanville France is doing only slightly better. These problems I attribute to an overly elaborate design that is very difficult to construct. In fact, AREVA seems to be veering away from the EPR by pushing a newer design. The AECL reactor ACR-1000 as reported elsewhere in this blog is dead. As for the Hitachi ABWR nobody is going to look at it after Fukushima. The good news is that the Westinghouse AP1000 has overcome its initial problems with new construction going well in China and the US. Plans for new reactor construction in various provinces of Canada have all been squelched. As reported here in other posts, the Canadian nuclear enterprise is now focused on refurbishing the Ontario reactors.

In September, I chatted informally with several AREVA people in France about the construction problems the EPR was having in Finland. Many of them blamed the Finns, especially the Finnish nuclear safety agency, as very difficult customers following what appeared to be the AREVA party line. One engineer was perhaps more frank than his colleagues admitting that “it’s been a long time since anyone built a reactor” which is probably close to the truth.  I also had a glimpse of the second EPR under construction at Flamanville on the Normandy coast. It looked to be going well. I left France with the impression that the schedule slippage and cost overruns on the EPR were just first-of-a-kind teething problems to be expected in building what I consider already an overly engineered and too complex reactor.

Imagine then my dismay when soon afterwards when it was reported that the nuclear regulators of the UK, France and Finland declared that the design of the EPR control system was fundamentally flawed. The operating and safety systems seemingly are not independent! Of course, they must be completely independent to provide the necessary high degree of safety. It’s as if they had built a car with the brake and accelerator systems somehow coupled. If the regulatory judgements turn out to be true then this is a momentous blunder in a reactor specifically engineered to ensure a high degree of safety.  If the designers have failed in such a basic principle then what other mistakes have they made? It is reported that AREVA has now lashed up some work-around analogue system but personally I have lost any residual confidence I may have once had in this design. I guess it also shows the Finns are not so dumb after all.

Over in the other corner the Westinghouse AP1000 has been found to have a faulty structural design for the so-called shield building which surrounds the containment structure as a first line of defence against severe storms and other possible impact events. It seems the shield building cannot take the loads that it has to support, especially the thousands of tons of dousing water at the top of the containment. Apparently this problem has been known to US nuclear regulators for at least a year and various tests and possibly redesigns are underway to correct this major flaw.  This again is a disappointing situation.

Is the GE-Hitachi ABWR faring any better than these two?   It wasn’t a contestant in the Ontario competition and so I haven’t been following it very closely. However, it does seem to be flying somewhat below the radar compared to the EPR and the AP1000.

These problems with its former competitors shouldn’t cause any joy in AECL. Its ACR-1000 is still firmly stuck on the drawing board with no realistic prospects of construction.  While their design “won” the Ontario competition, there is no indication that either the feds or Ontario are willing to incur yet more debt (another $20 to 30 billion or likely much more) in these tough economic times by building two ACRs at Darlington. The two levels of government are supposed to negotiating the cost split but I’m not optimistic.

Meanwhile there is no chance New Brunswick Power (now owned by Hydro Quebec) will build any new reactor after the Pt Lepreau refurbishment fiasco. Saskatchewan is fixated on a research reactor (but only if the feds ante up 75% of the costs).

That leaves Alberta with its own large deficit as the only other prospect for an ACR. Who knows maybe a reactor to get rid of it coal-fired generating plants would help in shielding the oilsands province from the attacks of the warmers? It’s probably better than just being perceived as a province of deniers since the warmers in spite of the recent allegations of scientific fraud have clearly won the day as the great Copenhagen dog and pony show unfolds.  Is that a realistic scenario?  Probably not!   

Let’s hope 2010 proves to be a better year for the nuclear enterprise than 2009.  

 

Refurbishment: maintaining Canadian nuclear expertise

If it ain’t broke, we didn’t build it.

 

Well not really, it just seems that way.

 

The need to replace the pressure tubes in CANDU reactors after 25 years or so of operation has always been considered a significant disadvantage of the design. Retubing is very complex since the tubes are integral parts of the reactor core. The whole operation must be done in high radioactivity fields in cramped spaces within the reactor confinement structure. Special remote handling tools and techniques need to be developed on a custom basis since each reactor will be somewhat different. To make matters even more complicated, often the owners “take the opportunity” to replace many other components, steam generators for example, while the reactor is down. The whole process has come to be called refurbishment.

 

To be fair other types of reactors also need mid-life repairs. In the past ten years or so the tops (lids) of several US light water reactor pressure vessels have had to be replaced due to premature corrosion. This is a big undertaking in itself but is still a much smaller job than retubing a CANDU. Many US reactors are licensed for 40 to 60 year lifetimes and the possibility of an 80 year or longer lifetime is being researched. 

 

Refurbishment of CANDUs has had a chequered history. The first two Pickering reactors had to be retubed in the 1970’s because a poor alloy was originally selected for the pressure tubes. This set the precedent for refurbishment as an expensive and lengthy undertaking. Refurbishing all four of the Pickering A reactors by OPG cost at least $3 billion total for just two of the reactors. It was subsequently decided that refurbishing the other two was too expensive and they were essentially shut down permanently.  Bruce Power has been soldiering on for the last few years refurbishing two or three of the four Bruce A reactors at a total cost apparently approaching $4 billion. The New Brunswick reactor overhaul, as reported previously in this blog, continues to be over budget and is lagging months behind  schedule with no end in sight.      

 

As for future CANDUs, it’s disappointing to me that the ACR -1000 design envisages refurbishment after 25-30 years. My hope was that they could have avoided this problem by designing more robust pressure tubes. It could be more even difficult to retube an ACR (if one is ever built) because the core has much smaller dimensions – hell in a very small place?

 

In spite of all its problems, there is an upside to refurbishment. With no possibility of building new reactors for five or ten years or more, it’s the only game in town for Canada’s nuclear industry. 

 

The funding for these projects buys goods and services provided by the many companies, great and small, that comprise the nuclear industry. Without it many of them wouldn’t survive.  Cost overruns are mainly labour costs which keep highly skilled engineers employed; preserving the specialized expertise needed to eventually build new reactors. Furthermore, it is apparent that even though refurbishing an existing reactor is costly, it is still much cheaper than building a new one.

 

So roll on refurbishment, it will likely continue to be the sustaining activity of our nuclear industry for years to come.

Ontario: Stop the Nuclear Renaissance we want to get off.

Have the wheels fallen off the Nuclear Renaissance in Canada?

 

The Ontario government has announced that it’s suspending its competition for new nuclear reactors because only the AECL bid met its requirements but even so their price was much too high.

 

Media reaction was muted and at first many including me assumed the suspension to be a political ploy on the part of Ontario government to induce the federal government to subsidize its new nuclear plants. In fact, many approving noises were made in the media, mainly making the point that there’s no particular need to rush to a decision. This because electricity demand is declining in Ontario due to the recession (but for how long?), additional generation facilities (including refurbished nuclear stations) are due to come on line in the next few years and the delay will give us time to see how other supply choices work out.

 

However, rumours (or more likely deliberate leaks) are now emerging that the bids received were very high. One report said that the AECL bid was $26 billion for two ACRs. That in my view is absurdly high.

 

So what are the facts? As regular readers of this blog will guess, the aspect that annoys me most about the Ontario competition is the continuing secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding the whole process.

 

For example, we need to know such things as:

  • Why were the AREVA and Westinghouse reactors rejected?
  • Did the evaluators consider the ACR technically superior to the other two reactors?
  • What were the prices quoted for each of the reactors?
  • What does the Ontario government consider a reasonable price as compared with the AECL bid price?

General answers to these questions and others must be forthcoming.  After all the citizens of Ontario have spent a lot of money on the answers although of course we’ll never know how much. We don’t need to know a high level of detail. Nevertheless, we must be told enough to have confidence in the soundness of the judgment that was made.

 

In the end it may be that the prices of new nuclear plants have simply become so high that few jurisdictions can afford them.  If Ontario can’t afford new reactors then the same must hold for New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In that case there will be no Nuclear Renaissance in Canada which would be a shame since we need this energy option but not at any price.    

AECL: the fading of the light.

I was stunned to read the recent quotes from the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications about AECL. He is reported to have said that AECL is “dysfunctional”, “a sinkhole” into which governments have poured “30 billion dollars” and that it will receive no additional funding to build a new research reactor. I can’t recall ever seeing such open condemnation of a government agency at the highest level. It used to be extraordinary for such opinions to be expressed openly. Even if some individuals in previous governments may well have felt that way about AECL, they didn’t go public with their feelings. In some sense it makes me cringe.

 

Of course, what’s happening is the government is distancing itself from AECL, now about to be thrown under the bus. The Maple fiasco and the breakdown of NRU which the Maples were intended to replace have caused such a public outcry about the now restricted supply of medical isotopes that the government can no longer afford to consume its political capital supporting AECL. 

 

The plan to “restructure” AECL as announced according to the National Bank study is to sell the reactor repair and sales businesses and keep what remains of the Chalk River R&D effort. However, dedicated R&D, backed by a research reactor comparable to NRU, is absolutely essential to the success of a nuclear power system. In particular, a new and untried reactor such as the ACR-1000 would need exactly this capability for example to investigate component failures, test safety concepts and develop new fuels. Maintaining and improving that sort of strong R&D capability is a primary reason why development of a Generation III+ reactor such as the ACR costs billions of dollars. Clearly Canada isn’t willing to spend that kind of money on the ACR. In particular, no potential purchaser would want to buy an ACR with no assured R&D backup and thus, in effect the restructuring is the end of the ACR.

 

In such circumstances the media predictably trot out that well-worn Canadian icon, the Avro Arrow but it’s not a good analogy. The CANDU has been “flying” for about 50 years and will be with us for decades to come in terms of refurbished reactors. Therefore, the CANDU is not like the Arrow, seemingly cut off before it had a chance to prove itself, but rather a technology that has been heavily supported by Canada for decades. The issue is whether to extend the technology to another level, i.e. the ACR, or to rejoin the world mainstream with an advanced light water reactor.  As discussed elsewhere in this blog, there are arguments on both sides of that issue.

 

The fundamental problem with AECL has been a series of very poor decisions over the last 15-20 years. The other day, I happened across an internal AECL memo from 1994 announcing that it had been decided that NRU would not get a new calandria (essentially an extensive rebuild). Rather AECL would embark on the Maples for isotope production and would not need an all purpose reactor of the NRU type.  There was even a suggestion to build a ridiculously complicated experimental reactor with two separate but interacting cores to replace NRU; thankfully that was not attempted. I can remember during those halcyon days of the China CANDU project  that many engineers from Sheridan Park were arguing that they could use the Halden reactor in Norway for any reactor R&D they might need.  As it turned out, that single 1994 decision not to rebuild NRU has turned out to have had momentous repercussions notably the impending demise of AECL as it once was.

Refurbishment Problems in New Brunswick?

Are fiddleheads hallucinogenic?

 

The reason I ask is that it could be an explanation for the upbeat optimism of the New Brunswick government on all matters nuclear. They have repeatedly expressed the desire for a second reactor apparently to produce electricity for export to the New England states. What’s more instead of just cloning their first and only reactor, the CANDU 6 at Pt. Lepreau, they want to take on the first-of-a-kind ACR-1000. In my opinion this would be an extremely daunting task for a relatively small utility in a one of the smaller provinces. Massive federal support would be essential but New Brunswick seems sanguine about getting it.

 

New Brunswick is the best prospect for the first ACR-1000. I believe that a few years from now,  after the current recession,  when Alberta and Saskatchewan get around to choosing reactors to build, they will probably choose the AREVA EPR in part because they would prefer a foreign reactor rather than one from eastern Canada on political grounds. The past tells me that both Bruce Power and OPG would prefer not to have any more CANDU reactors and if the Ontario government can get a low-risk fixed-price deal from AREVA, they will go with two EPRs for Darlington, assuming that Westinghouse is indeed out of the contest.

 

With respect to Ontario there was a recent newspaper report that some unions involved in the nuclear business would be content with foreign reactors and willing to work with offshore companies. They must be using the same crystal ball as I am. Of course, the AECL professional union was not in favour but whatever the outcome of the Ontario competition, their members will still have decades of work on CANDU refurbishment.   

 

By the above reasoning New Brunswick is the most likely site for the first ACR-1000. Unfortunately for AECL, the refurbishment of the Pt. Lepreau reactor has run into problems. The expected cost overruns as yet are only up to $90M on a total budget of $1.4B – a mere bagatelle in the refurbishment business- but still enough to cause rumblings in the local press. I note that the refurbishment of the very similar Gentilly II reactor in Quebec has been estimated to cost $2B so I’d advise the NB media to hang on to their hats in terms of the final cost. There was a Keystone Cops episode concerning turbine rotors falling off a barge and the demise of a local NB firm making the new end fittings involved in retubing, particularly distressing because the refurbishment was supposed to grow new industrial activity in the province and enhance exports sales.

 

Whether the above developments are making a dent in the provincial government’s nuclear optimism and what impact that might have on the plan for a second reactor remains to be seen.