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.  

 

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.

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. 

The AREVA EPR– the French Reactor

The AREVA EPR is one of the three contenders listed in the Ontario RFP and perhaps, a candidate for the reactors under discussion in Alberta and Saskatchewan and maybe for new reactors at Bruce Power if that occurs.  The second New Brunswick reactor will undoubtedly be an AECL product, most likely the first ACR-1000 but I can only hope they will choose an EC-6.

So what does EPR stand for? Well strangely enough it means one thing in Europe (European Pressurized Reactor) and another in the US (Evolutionary Pressurized Reactor) although apparently they are talking about exactly the same reactor design.  Apparently, the AREVA marketing department has concluded that confusion might still arise and they push the expression “US EPR” to drive the point home that their reactor is not merely a European artefact. It’s not clear what they believe is the best name choice for Canada.  

That may be typical of government owned companies. Well over 80% of AREVA is owned by the government of France with some minority interest by Siemens and others.  From recent episodes concerning takeover bids for other companies and the recent announcement of a second EPR for France, it’s clear that the CEO of AREVA takes direction on important issues directly from the President of France. One would think that fact alone might hamper AREVA’s reactor sales in the United States but probably not in Canada where we are more accustomed to state-owned companies such as AECL for example.

Most of the power reactors in France are actually Westinghouse designs but the last four French reactors completed by 2000 were designed by Framatome (since absorbed into AREVA) and form AREVA’s main experience in reactor design with a lesser contribution from Siemens experience with German reactors in the more  distant past.

The EPR is a light (ordinary) water reactor using it both for moderation and coolant. Its fuel is enriched uranium with up to 5% uranium-235. In those respects, it is generically similar to its Westinghouse rival, the AP1000. However, one area in which it is very different is its power output, 1,600 MW (e) (electrical) compared to a powers of about 1,100 MW (e) for the AP1000 and 1,050 MW (e) for the AECL ACR-1000. The EPR is a more powerful unit than its rivals which is advantageous in terms of brute power production but could be a disadvantage in flexibility for deployment on the Ontario grid where an EPR would roughly be the equivalent of two Darlington reactors.

In my opinion the design appears to have become overly complex by attempting to address a great many issues at the same time. For example, it has a complex containment system consisting of a steel shell attached to a concrete shell presumably to harden the reactor against an aircraft strike. By now even the least sophisticated terrorists have realized that driving an aircraft into a reactor containment structure is unlikely to lead to the havoc they would wish to create. In some sense the old aphorism that   “generals always prepare for the last war” seems to apply to the EPR.

To counter an accident in which a hot reactor core of molten fuel might burrow into the earth, the notorious “China Syndrome”, the EPR has a “core catcher” consisting of a concrete basin specially designed to prevent this happening. Other features are separate compartments for the heat transport (coolant) pumps and a pool of water at the base of the reactor.

It seems that these special features may have caused some of the delays and cost overruns experienced during the construction of the first EPR at Olkiluoto, Finland which is already 25-50% over budget and more than two years behind schedule. Problems in welding the steel containment shell and pouring concrete to the required specifications for the core catcher are reported to have been problems.  The second EPR being built at Flamanville Normandy is also having some construction problems but apparently less severe than in Finland showing that AREVA is well on the learning curve.

Difficulties in constructability are just one class of the teething problems to be expected in bringing any new complex engineering design into operation and probably will be typical of all three of the so-called Generation 3 reactors under consideration in Canada. The AREVA projects are simply the furthest along whereas the first AP1000 has just started construction and the ACR-1000 has at least another four years to go before a construction start can be made. 

Although I have my own personal misgivings, the EPR would likely prove to be an adequate reactor for use in Canada.