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.  


The Western Nuclear Reports: II Hiding the Warts

The nuclear industry wants to engage the public in a discussion of the controversial issue of nuclear power for Saskatchewan and Alberta. To do this effectively it has to confront the negative aspects of its pitch right out front at the beginning. That gives the industry the chance to spin the story the way they want it and with luck to set the agenda for future discussions. The worst strategy is to let the opponents of nuclear power and the media “discover” the negatives through a series of bogus sensational revelations. This is exactly what the industry proponents have set themselves up for in these reports.


You’d think that if the stated purpose was to provide background information on nuclear power for the people in the province, the Alberta report would have a comprehensive discussion of the experience of the other Canadian nuclear provinces. The following (with the exception of a few comments on nuclear waste disposal in Ontario) is all that is said in 60 pages.


“Canada has a total of 22 nuclear power reactors currently in service of which 20 are in Ontario (with 18 operating and 2 in a laid-up state and 1 in each of Quebec and New Brunswick  …”


I suppose one could justify this sentence by strenuous spinning around the definition of words “operating” and “laid-up” but in my opinion the net result is a misleading statement. The report implies Pickering 2 and 3 are “laid-up” Do they really believe these reactors will ever operate again? If so, the authors know something OPG doesn’t know.  As for the word “operating”, Bruce reactors 1 and 2 haven’t operated since 1997 and 1995 respectively and have been undergoing refurbishment since 2005. Bruce 3 is apparently also being retubed as an add-on to the repairs at Bruce 1 and 2. The New Brunswick reactor, Pt. Lepreau, is being refurbished (behind schedule and over budget) and Quebec’s Gentilly II reactor is about to begin the process. The semantics of this quote is not my main point rather it’s selectively excluding information that should be in any report on this subject.  This is sure to come back to bite nuclear proponents in Alberta.


The Saskatchewan report is slightly more forthcoming. It does acknowledge that there’s a competition in Ontario to choose a vendor for two new reactors.  (By the way was calling the Westinghouse reactor the APR-1000 deliberate confusion in that paragraph?) It doesn’t mention the CANDU 3 episode whereby AECL agreed with the Saskatchewan government during the early 1990’s to design and perhaps build a small cut rate CANDU based at an office in Saskatoon. The project was cancelled by the provincial government after a few years. One might say, so what? Leaving out Saskatchewan’s past flirtation with nuclear electricity makes the report incomplete and more importantly, the story shows that nuclear projects are vulnerable to the vagaries of Saskatchewan politics, an effect also experienced in other provinces.


Needless to say the words: refurbishment, retubing and repair don’t occur in either report let alone the Ontario IIPA. Much is said about Alberta in the Saskatchewan report primarily as a market for surplus nuclear electricity since Saskatchewan’s requirements are perhaps too small to justify a nuclear station. However, Saskatchewan is mentioned in the Alberta report only as a uranium source.          


I firmly believe nuclear technology is needed in Canada’s energy mix and that it can stand on its own merits. In fact, the government of Ontario has decided to go forward with new reactors in full knowledge of the ups and downs of nuclear power in that province. In my opinion, glossing over issues and omitting pertinent information is a disservice to the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan who I feel would be justified in assigning low credibility to both these documents. They certainly don’t help the nuclear cause.


The Western Nuclear Reports: Part I


Two reports were released this month by the panels set up in Alberta and Saskatchewan to review nuclear issues. You can download the Alberta report at:


The Saskatchewan report is at:


The Saskatchewan document is longer, more pleasingly designed and generally slicker over all.  An AREVA representative was an author on the Saskatchewan report and an AECL board member participated in writing the Alberta report. Westinghouse, the other putative reactor vendor to Canada, was not represented on either report which doesn’t seem fair. 


Taken together, these reports are very interesting because of their selectivity: the issues they chose to discuss and more importantly those they chose to ignore. They also provide excellent windows into the contemporary discussion on nuclear power.


As expected the bottom line recommendation in each report is to build power reactors.


The Saskatchewan report is called “Capturing the full potential of the uranium value chain in Saskatchewan”. Other than more investment in mining, the report rejects in large part any involvement in other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle: no new initiatives in uranium conversion or enrichment, nuclear fuel fabrication, reprocessing of used nuclear fuel and a wait-and-see attitude toward hosting a nuclear waste repository. There are a couple of suggestions such as R&D on the SILEX laser enrichment process and a medical isotope production reactor (yikes!) but in general the report concludes there isn’t much for Saskatchewan to capture in the value chain.  How precisely building power reactors in Saskatchewan, as compared to building reactors anywhere else, would enhance the provincial “uranium value chain” is not well explained.   


The Alberta report uses more space constructing an energy hat from which to produce its nuclear rabbit. I thought the discussion of fossil fuels was worthwhile in itself. In doing so it recognizes that the big competition to nuclear power in the west consists of fossil fuel plants with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).  The aim of CSS is to mitigate climate change by preventing the carbon dioxide resulting from fossil fuel combustion from entering the atmosphere. If eventually proved practical and reasonably economic then CSS plus air pollution controls would make it feasible to continue operating coal and natural gas power plants with relatively small environmental damage. It seems the federal R&D investment in CSS is around $750M and so  one can debate whether nuclear power is seen as the backup for fossil fuel electricity generation  with CSS or vice versa.


The more I look at these reports the more problems I see making it worthwhile to dissect them in detail. I intend to do exactly that in a series of forthcoming posts.



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.


Why not the CANDU- 6?

“The best way to skin a bear is to skin a bear”

I’m told the foregoing is an aboriginal proverb that points out the virtues of the direct approach to problems.  To be direct we need to be absolutely clear about the objective of building new reactors in Canada. Clearly the aim is to supply much needed electricity for the nation. It is not the development and testing of new reactor types such as the ACR-1000.  

If governments decide that the best course is to construct Canadian reactors for domestic use then I strongly believe the CANDU-6 is now a much better bet than the ACR-1000.

The CANDU-6 has been the workhorse of the AECL fleet for the last 25 years. It’s a tried and tested design with good performance that’s been successfully built and operated in New Brunswick, Quebec, Korea (4), Rumania (2), and China (2). The last CANDU-6’s were built in time frames in the order of five years and (miraculously for the nuclear industry) on budget. This reactor is now called the EC-6, Enhanced CANDU-6, and I can only hope that this renaming is mostly for marketing purposes and the fundamentally robust design is there. 

 The CANDU-6 is an unmitigated AECL success story achieved well before the MAPLE disaster and without the uncertainties of the ACR-1000.

Three of the first CANDU-6’s (in NB, Korea and just announced in Quebec) are now undergoing refurbishment. This means that the technical knowledge, personnel with necessary skills and the supply chain for this reactor type are all currently available domestically and ready for new construction. Furthermore, the design has been licensed by the CNSC for many years and recent environmental assessments related to refurbishment projects have been done.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that several CANDU-6 reactors could be quickly put in place using only Canadian resources.

I simply don’t understand why a small province like New Brunswick would want to go through the long and painful process of bringing the first ACR-1000 on line particularly with the risks raised by the MAPLE fiasco. Why not just build a second CANDU-6 beside the current one now being refurbished? There are so many obvious advantages in terms of operations, maintenance, training and so forth.  Needless to say there’s no way that Generation III+ reactor projects would be feasible in Alberta or Saskatchewan.

As for Ontario, the McKinsey report said “[the differences in life time costs] are not enough to rule out a contending design as fundamentally disadvantaged — save the EC6, which would not benefit from the same economies of scale as its Generation III+ competitors.” My feeling is that the report underestimates the longer times and higher costs associated with bringing Generation III+ reactors into service. In my opinion they’ve got it wrong.

As for the argument that Canada needs to successfully build and operate an ACR-1000 at home so it can export them, that falls under the category of nuclear R&DD and not electricity supply. Assuming, of course, that there is any export market left after the domestic demonstration is done. AECL may want to continue developing the ACR-1000 which would be OK for the future. For the present, let’s build CANDU-6’s.

The one problem I can see with is strategy is the heavy water supply issue discussed previously on this blog.