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.

Nuclear Power in Ontario – The Approaching Choke Point

Returning from one of the frequent boat rides (cruises) that I indulge in, I decided to check out the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) hearings for the licence extension of the OPG (Ontario Power Generation) Pickering reactors for a further five years to 2018. OPG announced they will shut down all six Pickering reactors by 2020. I’ve gone over the transcripts of the hearings and was encouraged by several improvements compared to the Darlington hearings which I intend to discuss in future posts. In this post I want to step back and consider the nuclear picture in Ontario to the end of this decade.

The key strategic issues for OPG are as follows.

Refurbish the four Darlington reactors over the period 2014 to 2018. If all goes well, by 2018 OPG will have four refurbished 880 MW(e) reactors capable of operating for another 25-30 years for a total of about 3,500 MW(e). This plan looks solid in spite of a few mutterings by politicians.

Build some 2,000 MW(e) of new reactors at Darlington. This plan has had many ups and downs over the last five years or so and in fact was what started me writing this blog. The current status seems to be that proponents of the enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6) and the Westinghouse AP1000 have each submitted bids paid for by OPG. The process has been highly secretive since the beginning and the decision to build what if any new reactors will be purely political and various politicians have supported both sides of the issue. It’s not at all certain (50-50?) that new reactors will be built.

Don’t refurbish the Pickering reactors but run them to 2018/2020. The Pickering station was built as two adjacent clusters of four reactors separated by a vacuum building common to all eight reactors. The first cluster, Pickering A, now consists of two operating reactors (numbers 1 and 4) that completed refurbishment in 2005 and 2003 respectively. These refurbishments ran way over budget and schedule and OPG decided not to refurbish reactors number 2 and 3. The four Pickering B reactors are essentially clones of the Pickering A reactors but built a few years later. By and large the Pickering reactors are not performing very well and the B reactors are at the point they need refurbishing. However, OPG has decided them to push the B reactors beyond their pressure tube design limit to around 2020 and then close all six Pickering reactors permanently. This request to push the pressure tube limits was the main issue of the Pickering hearings. The timing is so that the Pickering reactors could provide back-up power in case of delays in the Darlington project. Closure will entail a total loss of some 3,000 MW(e) of nuclear capacity.
Thus, by 2020 or earlier OPG will have between 3,500 and 5,000 MW(e) of nuclear power depending on whether the new reactors are built.

The key strategic issues for Bruce Power are the following.

Refurbish the remaining two reactors in Bruce A. The Bruce plant consists of two widely separated clusters of four reactors each. In the Bruce A group the reactors numbers 1 and 2 completed refurbishment last year and should be good for another 25 years or so (let’s say to 2040). Reactors number 3 and 4 were restarted in 2003 and 2004 but did not have their pressure tubes replaced. However, both of these reactors were shut down for about seven years which makes their pressure tubes roughly comparable in degradation to the Bruce B reactors that came into service in the years 1984 to 1987.

Refurbish the four Bruce B reactors. The Bruce reactor reactors, both the A and B ones, are more advanced, of higher power and perform much better than the ones at Pickering. Therefore, it’s almost a no-brainer to refurbish the Bruce B reactors and also the two in Bruce A. This is really the only way to maintain the more than 50% share of Ontario electricity now generated by nuclear power. With all eight reactors now in production the total capacity of the Bruce station is 6,3000 MW(e) which makes it the largest nuclear power installation in the world. The Bruce reactors are now performing very well with high capacity factors but the time for refurbishment is fast approaching given that the Bruce reactors are even older than the Darlington reactors. The experience of refurbishing Bruce reactors numbers 1 and 2 was that the time needed to complete both was about five to seven years at a total cost for both of around $4.5 billion. Extrapolated to the six reactors needing refurbishment this means a huge investment of about $14 billion. The project should be started immediately if the refurbished reactors want to operate much beyond 2018. No doubt softening up investors and government for this very large undertaking is the reason for Bruce Power’s publication this week of its blurb on a Vision for 2040.

Let’s summarize: between now and 2020 OPG will refurbish its four Darlington reactors, Bruce Power will need to refurbish six of its reactors and OPG may even host the construction of two or more new reactors. In my opinion there is no way that the Canadian nuclear industry is capable of doing all of this work before 2020. There are simply not enough highly skilled people available to perform these formidable engineering tasks, the supply chain will not able to support this level of effort and the $30-40 billion investment required is probably not there. This decade will see a huge and probably insurmountable choke point in nuclear activity in Ontario. I can’t see how all these tasks can be successfully accomplished in the time remaining and how nuclear will be able to retain its current share of Ontario’s electricity after 2020.

Ontario New Build – Treading Water

There have been developments this summer that reinforce my assessment that it will be some years before we see the new build reactors at Darlington.

The first was the statement by Ontario’s Energy Minister Chris Bentley – that’s right the half-hour plan guy mentioned earlier in this blog. The Toronto Star reported on June 8 in an article entitled “Energy minister hedges on new nuclear plant”:

“Ontario’s energy minister ducked Friday when asked whether the province intends to go ahead with building new nuclear reactors at Darlington. Chris Bentley said the province is still mulling the options of new nuclear reactors, and refused to comment directly when asked whether one option is no new reactors at all.”

The other to me even more interesting  development was the news in July that that Ontario Power Generation is paying $26 million to CANDU Energy (SNC Lavalin) and Westinghouse to develop detailed plans for the new reactors. An OPG spokesman quoted in a July 11 article in the Toronto Sun (“OPG paying $26 million for estimates on building new nuclear reactors”) said:

“This is common in large projects like this as there is recognition that firms will incur expenses in order to provide the level of detail we require”

Really – is this true? I don’t know of another case where bidders for reactor projects were paid by the purchaser to produce their bids. Perhaps, a reader can provide one? In any case my interpretation is that it hedges the Ontario government against complaints and maybe lawsuits from the bidders if the reactors are not actually built. It also puts in place a process that postpones for a two to three year period the need to make a definitive decision on going ahead with the new reactors.

What also leaps out is that there are only two bidders left. What happened to the Areva EPR? Certainly construction of the EPR in Finland has had serious cost and schedule overruns and is now enmeshed in legal and regulatory challenges. The second EPR being built in France has fared somewhat better but still has regulatory difficulties. I haven’t been able to determine how the two in China are doing but overall it seems fair to say that saying the EPR hasn’t attracted the buyers Areva expected. Westinghouse with more AP1000 sales has out-competed the EPR.  It also appears that Areva’s sales effort has shifted to their ATEMEA1 reactor and away from the EPR.  However, as usual the secrecy under which the Ontario government loves to operate and which I detest so much, prevents the public from knowing whether Areva jumped or was pushed out of the contest.

One can speculate there are many reasons that Ontario is unwilling to commit to new build although it’s hard to judge which ones are most important?  Ontario is in a serious budget crisis and is trying to reduce expenditures. Therefore, they are very reluctant to embark on a reactor building adventure that will be perceived by many as escalating the already swollen provincial debt. Since the government has a minority in the legislature in practice it would be necessary to have the support of both opposition parties; with the Conservatives in decline and the smaller socialist NDP on the rise this would be tricky. If the anti-nuclear NDP wins the next election then there would be no new built. I believe the fiscal and political issues are the main reasons but we could also add decreased public support as a result of Fukushima, the current surplus of electricity in Ontario, static or very low growth in power demand for the last decade, recent lower prices of gas fired electricity, the substantial cost and schedule overruns for the Bruce and Pt. Lepreau refurbishments, the government’s ideological commitment to renewable energy, and the credibility gap in energy planning from cancelling two gas plants under construction apparently to counter strong local NIMBY sentiments blocking the election of local government candidates.  Take your choice it could be any of the above or none of the above.

The Ontario government is now treading water on the new reactors so probably there won’t be a definite decision until after the next election.

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.  


Why Generation III+?

“The best is the enemy of the good”

Voltaire’s comment certainly applies to big engineering projects like reactors. Engineers love to fiddle with designs to improve them in order to make them the best.  That’s just an instinct they have. What often happens is that large numbers of design changes ripple out to impact so many parts of the design that an entirely  different product is the end result. The old slogan “Leave well enough alone” should be prominently posted in all engineering offices.

Engineers like to frame this as the “evolution” of an existing design. You may have started with something that worked well and now you have something new and unknown which may or may not perform.

The three competitors for Ontario’s new reactors are all Generation III+ reactors meaning that they are based on but evolved from their predecessors. Very large investments are necessary to bring these designs to fruition.  Right now AREVA and Westinghouse are in the process of ironing out the bugs in their EPR and the AP1000 reactors in Finland, France, China and the US soon. 

The issue is should Canada go through the long and expensive process needed to make the ACR-1000, a Generation III+ reactor, a reality?

The shakeout of the ACR-1000 will have to done domestically with the cooperation of a Canadian utility willing to share the technical and financial risks.  I don’t see any Canadian utility willing or able to do it. My sense is that OPG wouldn’t want to do it and Bruce Power would have to get permission from its landlord, OPG, to be involved. In spite of the noises made by New Brunswick Power, they are too small to host a totally new reactor type and Hydro Quebec is also too small in the nuclear sense. Trying to develop the ACR-1000 in Alberta or Saskatchewan where there is no nuclear plant experience whatever  is totally unrealistic in my opinion.  

An even knottier problem is whether the capability exists in Canada to pioneer a new Generation III+ reactor.  I don’t see the required strength in depth, creativity and leadership in today’s AECL, its subcontractors and our domestic utilities. The MAPLE fiasco, the NRU regulatory debacle, the MDS lawsuit and recent reports of poor tracking by AECL of radioactive material in the Bruce project have undermined my own confidence in AECL. I suspect these problems have also had a negative impact on employee morale.  To be fair chronic underfunding and shifting priorities by a succession of federal governments appear to have significantly eroded AECL over the past two decades and it is no longer the very strong organization that built the original CANDU’s.

It also appears that the refurbishment projects undertaken at Bruce, in New Brunswick and Korea may have over stretched Canada’s nuclear talent.  From where I sit, I see some excellent young engineers going into the nuclear industry but there aren’t nearly enough of them.  

Personally, I have concerns about whether Canada, and in particular AECL, have the resources necessary to independently realize a new Generation III+ reactor like the ACR-1000.  

If that’s the case then the question is why not build CANDU-6 reactors instead? I’ll discuss that in my next post. 

AP1000 – the Westinghouse Entry

“You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse”

The old advertising slogan from the 1950’s still contains a grain of truth. However, the Westinghouse of today is very different from the old company with several changes of ownership over the intervening years. At the moment the majority shareholder of Westinghouse Nuclear is Toshiba who purchased it from British Nuclear Fuels in 2006 who had purchased it from CBS in 1996 and so on.

Nevertheless, Westinghouse in its various incarnations can claim to have designed or built about half of the world’s nuclear power plants including many now operating in the US, France and Japan, an impressive record.

The AP1000 is a pressurized water reactor (PWR) moderated and cooled by light (normal) water using enriched uranium fuel.  It belongs in the same class of reactors as the AREVA EPR but with a net electrical power of 1100MW compared to 1600 MW of the EPR.

Personally, I find a lot to like in the design philosophy of the AP1000. The designers to the extent possible use components already tested and operating in existing reactors. In addition to having established suppliers, this also facilitates experience-based prediction of the operational characteristics of these components, information critical for convincing Probabilistic Risk Assessment of system safety. This key factor accounts for the AP1000 design being so far along in the US and European licensing processes.

Another design emphasis is on making the reactor simpler that its predecessors. For example, the AP1000 claims to use 50% fewer safety-related values, 89% less piping, and 85% less cabling.  That appeals to me on the grounds that the fewer components there are, the less there are to go wrong. Both Maintenance and construction should be easier.  

The AP1000 incorporates several “passive safety” features meaning that the reactor can make use convection and other natural phenomena to deal with accident scenarios. This used to be called “inherent safety” but this expression to my mind in the same class as “unsinkable ship” has thankfully passed into history as has the Titanic.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, Westinghouse has concluded a deal for two AP1000 reactors for South Carolina. Construction in China on the first AP1000 started in February this year. It is being constructed by a Chinese utility using technology transferred from Westinghouse and is expected to go into operation in 2013. This is an impressive schedule and it remains to be seen if the reactor can be built on time and on budget.

There was a rumour around a few months ago that Westinghouse was less interested than it might be in the Canadian market because it wished to concentrate on the US market. The forgings shortage and the fact that they were the only reactor vendor to show up at the Polish Engineers in Canada session in spite of the Ontario government gag order have been mentioned in support of this speculation.  I hope the rumour is false because from what I know at this point the AP1000 looks to be an excellent reactor.

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