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.

Reactor Costs – Checking out a bad analogy

The Canadian Nuclear Association has come up with an analogy to address the high capital costs of nuclear plants. It goes something like this:

We could live in a hotel with no upfront capital costs but most of us choose to pay a high initial capital cost to live in a house.

OK so it sounds cute but in my opinion comparing housing options has nothing with do with building nuclear plants. However, it does inspire me to pursue this capital cost argument a bit further.

Consider that a nuclear plant is built for $10 billion overnight cost. The latter means that not only the labour and material costs but also the cost of the funds borrowed during the time it takes to build the plant are all rolled into one overnight cost. The reactor cost quoted is not unreasonable and is probably a good guess for an Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC-6), the most likely candidate for Ontario’s new reactors.

Since we are talking about the housing analogy let’s go to amortization tables and find that the monthly mortgage payment at a 5% discount rate is about $5.34 per $1,000 borrowed in order to pay off the principle and interest in uniform payments over 30 years which was is the amortization period normally used for Ontario reactors. Applying this to the overnight cost we obtain an annual mortgage payment of $641 million.

Let’s assume that the plant is rated at 700 MWe (an EC-6) and it operates at 90% capacity factor. That gives an average annual electricity production of 5.52 billion kWh and thus, to cover the capital cost alone would require a little less than $0.116 per kWh. To this we would have to add O&M, fuel costs, decommissioning and used fuel management allowances and, since we are talking about a CANDU, a provision for refurbishment after 25-30 years.

The wholesale price of electricity in Ontario at periods of normal demand is around $0.02 to $0.04 per kWh. Roughly speaking Ontario Power Generation gets about $0.04 and Bruce Power about $0.06 per kWh wholesale for their generation. The consumer pays about $0.12 per kWh after transmission and distribution costs are added plus subsidies for renewables and debt repayment charges for past reactor construction. The foregoing numbers are a great oversimplification of a complex market structure superimposed over a lot of generally dumb political decisions but they do give us a basis for a rough comparison.

What jumps out at us immediately is that a $10 billion EC-6 doesn’t fit in the current economic framework for electricity in Ontario. Just paying the mortgage means the electricity produced is more than two to three times current wholesale prices before any add-on costs. Of course, there are many ways to play with the assumptions and juggle the numbers. Project finance and accounting experts know a myriad of dodges and tricks to come up with any cost of electricity one might desire. Low balling the initial cost to get the project approved is almost standard in the industry but can be counteracted to some extent by Blackett’s observation that the announced project cost should be multiplied by π to estimate the final project cost.

I like the following quote by David Fessler writing about investing in uranium (Jan 29, 2013)

“With regard to plant construction costs, natural gas is to nuclear as Wal-Mart is to Saks Fifth Avenue.”

This observation is proved yet again in Ontario. To fit current economics it looks like the new reactor capital cost should be in the range of $3-5 billion which won’t happen. (The capital cost of a comparable natural gas plant would be in the order of $1 billion but after that the economics depends on gas prices.) The usual way of getting around paying realistic amortization on the high capital costs of reactors is to have a government as your banker/guarantor which historically has proven to be the only feasible way of building them.

This also explains why refurbishing existing reactors to extend their useful lives is a much more attractive proposition economically than building new ones. In Ontario we’ve already paid for many of the older reactors but I hasten to add that we are still paying on our monthly electricity bills the construction debt for the four Darlington reactors, completed some 20 years ago.

Maybe the “hotel” in the CNA analogy is natural gas although there are comparatively lower capital costs? Strong reasons for building nuclear plants include mitigating climate change and reducing harmful pollution from fossil fuels but attractive economics isn’t one of them. However, in my opinion government subsidizing of nuclear power, as is done for wind and solar energy, is completely justified and necessary.

The house/hotel analogy just draws attention to this reality and in my opinion should shelved by advocates of nuclear power.

Darlington: Management of Nuclear Accidents

After Fukushima it became impossible to deny that serious nuclear accidents will occur from time to time and that more attention must be paid to mitigating their effects. In particular an important problem is how to effectively and efficiently evacuate the people likely to be affected by the radiation produced in the accident.
I should declare a bias at the start of this piece. In the 1960’s, as a young naval reserve officer, I did a two week course at the now-defunct Canadian Civil Defence College in Arnprior, Ontario. The College was an excellent school with all manner of training aids including simulated collapsed buildings for hands-on training in rescue, facilities for mass feeding of evacuees, demonstrations of how to set up casualty clearing stations, radiation monitoring and decontamination stations and so forth back in the day when it was believed that a nuclear war was survivable. From that brief experience I certainly didn’t become an expert in emergency planning but I did gain a lasting appreciation for what would be involved in assisting the victims of a nuclear accident. It is indeed a formidable task best left to experts and the key to success is a flexible well-established Command and Control structure that can deal with the accident situation as it evolves.
The point is that the population affected by an emergency need to feel there is a strong and capable authority in charge. This means there must be a good alerting system and very good communications as the accident unfolds. I used to show my nuclear engineering students the 1999 PBS documentary Meltdown at Three Mile Island. In the film politicians, media, engineers and local residents were brought together twenty years after the accident to share their experiences including the confusion over what was happening at the plant and the contradictory orders to evacuate. Jimmy Carter, then President of the United States, and Dick Thornburgh, then Governor of Pennsylvania, were both unable to get clear information on the accident and local municipal officials were left completely in the dark.
Similarly in the documentary Battle of Chernobyl Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the USSR at the time, says he couldn’t find out what was happening in the first two days and in the end he had to resort to asking the KGB, the secret police, to find out for him the situation at Chernobyl. The reports on the Fukushima accident show that some authorities didn’t share information with others on radiation and in fact some people were evacuated to areas of higher radiation. The organizations operating all three reactors were more of a hindrance than a help and mainly confined themselves to issuing soothing reassurances to the public. For example, Gorbachev was told on the first day of the accident that the Chernobyl reactor was so safe it could be placed in Red Square with no resulting harm. Met Ed, the TMI utility and TEPCO, the Fukushima operator, were notoriously poor at communications not only with the public but also with government and the media.
What comes across strongly in all these accidents is the overriding importance of effective communications and the need for a centralized authority to coordinate and implement all aspects of dealing with the accident. It was clear at the Darlington hearings that OPG and the CNSC in particular had little understanding of how the existing organizations in place to deal with emergencies would operate. Representatives of the Durham Emergency Management Office and Emergency Management Ontario were called upon to be questioned at the hearings but my observation is that the Commission was unable to understand their message. At one point the CNSC president was asking the cool disembodied voice of an EMO official present by teleconference if he could give him “a plan he could hold in his hand” – I expected the song Call me maybe to start playing in the background.
My first recommendation is that the Emergency Management organizations have absolute control of the response to nuclear emergencies with offsite consequences. Otherwise there are too many other organizations and politicians that would meddle in the situation to create a total fiasco. I would further recommend that much more funding be invested in EM organizations particularly in areas around the reactor sites. This is a “no regrets” option since a higher level of preparedness would also have a positive impact on non-nuclear disasters.
In an on-site emergency the accidents to date have taught us that it was the fire fighters and local plant staff who fought to bring their reactors under control. The troop of lavishly paid suits power companies trot out for public performances only gave bogus public reassurances. Much is owed to the courage of the firemen of Chernobyl and the fifty men who stayed at Fukushima. I would strongly recommend that the OPG types stop drawing circles around their reactors based on dubious PSA calculations and instead put their efforts and their money into preparing and supporting the boots on the ground that will have to deal with an emergency.
Emergency management is far too important to be neglected because an accident is thought to be improbable.

Darlington: More Safety Related Issues

Three more significant topics related to nuclear safety came up at the hearings.

The first concerns the population near the Darlington reactor complex. The higher the surrounding population the more impact an accident would have. The Darlington station is about 70 km from downtown Toronto. The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station with its six operating and two dormant reactors is even closer to Toronto. As I understand it, the plan is to extend the life of the four Pickering B reactors until around 2025 and then close down the two remaining Pickering A reactors at the same time. If this goes as planned, all the Pickering reactors would be shut down in twelve years. Significant nuclear activity including decommissioning and used fuel storage would still remain at Pickering but the potential for a reactor accident with far reaching consequences would disappear.
On the other hand the four Darlington reactors as refurbished will operate until 2060 and perhaps two more new build reactors will be added to bring the total to six. With Pickering closed down one might want to reconsider whether it is a good idea to build new reactors so close to the major population centre of southern Ontario or indeed whether the continued operation of the current Darlington reactors after refurbishment is a good idea. New reactors could be built at willing communities such as the Bruce site, in the upper Ottawa valley and Nanticoke on Lake Erie. Indeed, why not share the economic wealth that the boosters love so much? I know that this is not going to happen but I strongly suspect that if we had it to do all over again we’d keep the reactors as far away from large populations as possible.
A second issue concerns reactor operation when the safety systems are unavailable. According to the Darlington hearings presentation of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), a venerable ant-nuclear group, reactors are sometimes operated with one or more of the safety systems unavailable. Not only that but the CNSC (and its predecessor the AECB) used to annually publish “statistics” on the unavailability of the safety systems but no longer does so even though OPG still provides them to the CNSC. The CCNR wanted to see them published again.
This became a classic case of the miscommunications that plague the nuclear industry. The CCNR would have us believe that the operators would in effect say “Doesn’t matter if all the safety systems are working, let’s start up the reactor”. On the other side the CNSC and OPG vehemently denied that reactors are ever operated without any of the four main safety systems available. As usual the truth is somewhere in between. CANDU reactors can operate for weeks and months without ever shutting down. At various times during continuous operation the safety systems are tested and sometimes one or more are temporarily unavailable. The number and duration of such outages comprise the statistics in question. It seems that both sides of the issue deliberately chose to misunderstand each other. The original question (i.e. why doesn’t the CNSC still publish the statistics) was never answered.
A third issue is the multi-unit nature of the Darlington station. All four reactors share a common control room, a large cavernous room (“area zero” as I recall), with a separate console area for each reactor. This makes the control area very vulnerable to accidents and malevolent actions. Both the Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl reactors involved in the accidents were in multi-reactor clusters. In both cases the neighboring reactors undamaged by the accidents continued to operate for years afterward. The key was that the other reactors had their own control rooms isolated from the damaged reactors so that for example radiation in or damage to the control room of one didn’t affect the others. In the case of Fukushima four reactors were involved and the problem there was the whether the reactors could be remotely operated from a secondary control room. Multi-reactor/single control room issues are being reconsidered internationally. I feel that intuitively one would prefer a separate control room for each reactor which is not the case at Darlington.
As for malevolent acts I personally doubt, with no particular knowledge for believing so, that any armed terrorist gang would attempt to fight its way into the common control room area but if they were successful all four reactors would be in danger. The actions of mentally disturbed workers including those with drug or alcohol problems are more likely to be the source of attacks on the shared control room area. The CNSC has been discussing mandatory drug and alcohol testing of reactor operators but as far as I can determine no regulations are yet in place. The good news is that a cyber attack, a technique that has already been used against nuclear facilities elsewhere in the world, does not appear to distinguish between control room configurations. Various comments on these matters were made by intervenors but in this case it is clearly in everyone’s interests to keep all the details of security arrangements secret.
I believe the first and third of the above problem areas arose from an overly optimistic attitude to nuclear safety on the part of Darlington’s designers stemming from a desire to save money by minimizing transmission loses and by having the reactors share common facilities.

Darlington: The Safety Elephant in the Room

Fukushima has changed our approach to nuclear safety to more emphasis on accident mitigation.

At these hearings the elephant in the room was not Elmer the traffic safety elephant well know to Canadian children but the Fukushima safety elephant. It shook up the way we look at nuclear safety.
The essential lesson from Fukushima is that future reactor accidents are much more probable than what we might like to think. Since then accident mitigation has become an urgent consideration as shown by the emphasis on emergency planning at the hearings.
According to the World Nuclear Association there have been almost 15,000 years of power reactor operation from about 1960 to the end of 2012. During that time there have been three serious nuclear accidents – “black swans” (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima). This makes the probability of a serious accident about 1 in 5,000 or 2 x 10-4 per reactor year. One can play with this number by changing the number of reactors that melted down (three at Fukushima or not counting TMI as a serious accident) and so on but it’s the order of magnitude of the meltdown probability that is really of interest.
Each of these events occurred in a different reactor types (PWR, RMBK and BWR) in countries with differing nuclear cultures and regulation regimes. Aside from stressing the importance of overriding issues such as human error, institutional failure and design defects, it is difficult to know where to go with the black swan approach in analyzing reactor safety. Although certainly one can draw lessons from them after the fact as is being done for Fukushima, notably compensating measures for the complete loss of electrical power in a reactor plant (“total station blackout”) and further measures to prevent hydrogen explosions.
Contrast this with the traditional approach to reactor safety known as PSA (Probabilistic Safety Analysis/Assessment). This approach tries to examine all possible accident event sequences and figure out the probability associated with each sequence. In practice it’s very complicated and there can be hundreds or even thousands of events and sequences. To give an overly simplified example, let’s consider an accident sequence that starts with event A: a cooling pipe breaks, then B: a sensor fails to indicate the break, then C: the reactor operator doesn’t see the reactor temperature increasing, then D: a switch activating the emergency core cooling system doesn’t work, then E: the operator pushes the wrong button to correct this and F: a core meltdown occurs because the reactor overheats.
This too simple example illustrates some of the key aspects of PSA. The validity of the approach depends on the accuracy of the probabilities assigned to the individual events since the overall accident probability (of event F for example) is obtained by multiplying the probabilities of the individual events in the sequence. Some might be well known; perhaps the B sensor is used in many applications and its failure rate is well documented from experience. At the other end of the scale there are probabilities that one can merely guess at e.g. the initiating pipe break probability might be hard to evaluate. Another very important condition is that the probability of a certain event happening is independent of other events. This may not always be the case: event C implies an incompetent operator and therefore, event E may be more likely. For completeness all possible accident sequences need to be evaluated. There isn’t any way to be sure completeness has been achieved. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an event sequence at Fukushima that started with: “suppose there was a tsunami wave higher than the protective sea wall”.
Safety analysts in Canada and internationally continue to use PSA. In fact people have made whole careers in the nuclear industry putting bells and whistles on the basic PSA framework. While it has proven useless for predicting accident probabilities, PSA is useful for highlighting and correcting potential problems. In the context of the example above, perhaps a more reliable type of switch D could be installed or better training is needed for operators in terms of events C and E. The other important reason for continuing PSA is that there doesn’t seem to be any worthwhile alternative. As CNSC staff pointed out, PSA is still the international standard approach to reactor safety.
The problem is that PSA comes up with accident probabilities of the order of one in a hundred thousand or one in a million or even one in ten million per reactor year that are completely out of whack with the one in five thousand observed accident frequency. At the hearings I was disappointed to hear staff from the CNSC and OPG bandy about terms such as a “10-6 accident”, usually without the “per reactor year” unit giving the erroneous implication that these were realistic accident probabilities. In the best interpretation this could be excused as bad communications using nuclear jargon and in the worst interpretation a dishonest attempt to minimize the probability of an accident.
Much more serious was OPG and the CNSC using PSA as a basis for emergency planning. Statements were made that can be roughly paraphrased as “their (PSA) probability is so low that we don’t consider accidents with offsite consequences more than a few kilometers from the site” and “OPG has identified two catastrophic accident scenarios but their PSA probabilities are in the order of 10-7 and so we can safely ignore them”. Using PSA, discredited by experience as a method of predicting accident probabilities, is unscientific and intellectually dishonest. Thus, in my opinion, the hearings witnessed a disgraceful performance on the part of the institutions charged with our nuclear safety.

Darlington Boosters

“As a nuclear plant-hosting municipality, we have depended on it in terms of finance and employment…. Our village may have reaped benefits for 30 or 40 years. But if we lose our homeland in return, what’s the point?.. What a lowly, sad people we are to think that way…”
These are the words of Tatsuya Murakami, Mayor of Tokai Japan after the Fukushima accident. Tokai has twelve nuclear establishments and about eight thousand of its inhabitants depend on them for their livelihood. I’ve been to the Tokai area on five or six separate occasions before Fukushima and found it to be a pleasant and prosperous place. Murakami was a strong early booster of the nuclear industry but now is the leader of the Japanese municipalities trying to stop the restart of their shut-down reactors.
This is just a cautionary note because, as one might expect, there were several project boosting interventions at the Darlington hearings based on economic benefits to communities including lots of well paying jobs. The essential messages were that the proponents loved all things nuclear and especially the associated money which they insist must be kept flowing. They were right to say that thousands of new high quality jobs were bound to be created by the refurbishment project.
Politicians at all levels pushed this message as did reps of the nuclear unions and companies in the industry. There were even a couple of presentations from the newly fledged local university, one consisting of a lame plea from engineering students that they needed the jobs the project would create.
While it’s not within the mandate of the CNSC to consider job creation, we can be sure that this aspect is glowingly reported to what used to be called “the Centre” of the federal government (PCO or PMO?) as yet another triumph of the administration’s Economic Action Plan.
OPG was portrayed by many as a strong supporter of the communities around Darlington. Apparently this included lots of money in addition to briefings to local municipal councils. It seems that for many years the OPG cash fairy was flitting around sprinkling money on all sorts of no doubt worthy organizations; they in turn showed up to sing OPG’s praises at the hearings.
Support was also given by towns hosting other nuclear installations far from Darlington. Closer to home the Mayor of Clarington gave a fulsome endorsement to OPG including thanking them for providing funding so that their Council could hire consultants to review the OPG submission to the Environmental Assessment. He didn’t say but I’d guess that such a review might be done for something like $50,000 or less. I thought it was a pity that the municipality with an annual budget of more than $60 million (as far as I could tell on the net) couldn’t afford to do this with its own funds especially since as the Mayor said it was so important to the town. But then who could refuse the OPG cash fairy?
Let’s hope for all of our sakes that Darlington’s local politicians don’t find themselves in the future with the same regrets as the Mayor of Tokai.

Intervenors at the Darlington Hearings

As one would expect the quality of the submissions and presentations was mixed. I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of some of the intervenors against the project. On both sides, pro and con, there was a wide variety in the presentations and those giving them: a professional actor and a radio producer, an MP and an MPP, a former Ontario Minister of Energy, feather waving first nations types, academics from at least six universities, and computer experts gave performances with and without props , slide shows some with high quality graphics and above all impassioned speeches.
I thought a few interventions were very entertaining but many more were pure drudgery to listen to. Fortunately I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t have had the patience or the cast iron derriere needed to sit through it all. However, I did wade through all the written stuff and watched all the videos.
Certainly, many of the anti-project interventions were merely pleas to stop it professing no doubt sincere concerns for children and grandchildren. If I had been present my reaction would have been that children are a big part of the world’s environmental problems. There are too many of them and the best thing those presenters could do for the environment would be to stop having them. But that just shows my political incorrectness.
Even the generalized anti-nuclear presentations were for the most part were delivered with passion and sincerity. They shouldn’t be ignored. We scientists and engineers tend to discount emotion but humans often make decisions on that basis. It’s like trying to convince someone to love you. No amount of rational argument will work when the other person simply doesn’t like you. It’s an emotional issue as is nuclear power. There is no exaggeration in saying that a significant segment of Canadians, perhaps a quarter to a third, regard the nuclear industry with fear and loathing. At the very least these presentations serve to remind us of this unpleasant truth.
I don’t want to trivialize the arguments against Darlington refurbishment. Some were well researched, argued and presented points that deserve serious attention. I’ll get to the topics raised in subsequent posts in this series.
Relevance was another matter. For example, many strongly preferred green energy sources to nuclear power. This was one reason why some urged a full Panel environmental assessment (EA) rather the Screening EA being done here. Their idea was that a Panel review could be empowered to look at alternatives, that is could we do something other than the Darlington refurbishment that would have less effect on the environment? However, changes to EA regulations in a recent federal act essentially would kick the Panel review back to CNSC and so accomplish nothing especially since the Commission has no mandate or ability to look at anything other than nuclear technology. Decisions on electricity generation are a matter for the provinces, Ontario in this case, and not of the federal government represented by CNSC.
However, revision of the Nuclear Liability Act of 1985 to include a higher payout limit is a federal mandate. The Act has many legal advantages such as shifting absolute liability to the nuclear operator and lets suppliers and contractors off the hook. The present liability limit of $75 million is low but bills (at least four of them) to raise the limit to $650 million (latest bill) have been allowed to lapse without a vote in Parliament. Apparently the higher limit is derived more from the carrying capacity of the domestic insurance market than from any realistic assessment of potential damages. Much was made of this by intervenors but no one argues that $650 million would be even close to the cost of recovery from a catastrophic nuclear accident. All a revised Act would do is to make OPG and other nuclear operators pay higher premiums for the higher coverage which is probably why it hasn’t passed. In my opinion the Act makes no difference one way or the other to the nuclear discussion and thus, is not relevant.

The Darlington Hearings

The December 3-6, 2012 CNSC hearings on the future of the Darlington nuclear station provided an occasion to assess the major issues concerning the nuclear power industry in Ontario.

The public hearings held by the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) were on three applications by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) all mashed together:
-Environmental Assessment on the Proposed Refurbishment of all four Reactors
-Application for renewal of the licences for the Darlington Waste Management Facility
-Renewal of the Nuclear Power Reactor Operating Licence until Refurbishment starts

As a long time nuclear type, I found this material of great interest in terms of the current health and status of the nuclear industry also as a showcase of both on-going issues and the emergence of new ones.

Among others, major issues that came up were evacuation, monitoring, nuclear safety assessment, software integrity, fish destruction, project costs and energy alternatives to Darlington. I intend to discuss these issues and others in separate posts. Novel (at least new to me) arguments were also made in some areas.

There is a very large amount of information and data available on the matters discussed some on the CNSC website, some on OPG websites and some elsewhere. The written submissions for these particular hearings can be obtained directly from the CNSC. I requested and received from the CNSC a complete set of the written submissions for which I’m grateful. Video of the sessions is on the CNSC site. The videos can be found at
http://nuclearsafety.gc.ca/eng/commission/webcasts/2012/december-3-4-5-6-2012-commission-public-hearing.cfm

There was lots of repetition in the way particular topics were covered. Some raised issues already covered previously by others prompting questions from the commission such as “Were you here this morning when this was discussed at length?” Invariably the answers were negative and a rehash of past discussions was the result. I thought this would be tedious and irritating but it turned out to be interesting since the repeat answers given by OPG and Commission often varied somewhat from those first put forth. My observation was that CNSC and OPG staff were not often capable of making explanations that the public could understand.

Availability is not the same as accessibility and many of the groups and individuals appearing before the Commission complained that they couldn’t find the information they needed. Answers varied from the unhelpful type “it’s on the shelf above the toilet in the powder room” to “we’ll send you the link”. It is clear that there should be some sort of master index available to the public to facilitate participation in CNSC processes. This needs to be corrected.

At the beginning of this series I should declare that my own bias is that the Darlington refurbishment is important to the survival of Canada’s nuclear industry. There has to be a meaningful level of nuclear activity to preserve individual skills and industrial capability until new reactors are built. The latter may be a long time in the future and Darlington refurbishment should last for at least ten years and so to some extent bridge the gap. Without it there is a real danger the capability we now have will dissipate and the nuclear option will close for Canada.

I’m also willing to admit that as green technology evolves and the experiences of countries such as Germany now trying to get out of nuclear are tallied it may turn out that the nuclear option is not as necessary as it is now. Until that time, perhaps a decade or two from now, I would strongly argue that we need to keep it.

Premier of Ontario Resigns – Nuclear Fallout

On Oct. 15 Dalton McGuinty announced he will resign as Premier when a successor is chosen, presumably so he can spend more time lying to his family.

 McGuinty’s departure could well have serious consequences for nuclear power in Ontario.

For those who don’t know him, McGuinty is almost a dead ringer for the Norman Bates title character in the classic Hitchcock movie Psycho. I can recall watching it in a Halifax movie theatre around 1960 as part of a group of navy cadets. We thought we were really macho but Psycho scared the crap out of us. That made me leery of McGuinty from the beginning and as it turned out I was right.

For some nine years he presided over an incompetent and scandal-ridden government shrouded in secrecy. Fittingly the last straw was the expensive cancellation of two gas powered generation plants under construction that McGuinty admitted was to ensure the election of members of his party in constituencies surrounding the plants. This was too much for even a passive public to take. The provincial parliament forced the release of some 56,000 pages of hitherto secret documents on the gas plants which apparently paint a dismal picture of government manipulations.

Unfortunately nothing was released concerning the government’s nuclear activities or its renewable energy policies. There were rumours of energy decisions made by a strange bag of motley types: a particularly strident renewables maven, a German energy Munchausen, a cabinet minister with only a fragile attachment to reality, and blowhard industry executives who successfully insisted on secret deals claimed necessary not to impair their competitive positions. Enormous mistakes were made in terms of granting absurdly long-term contracts, sole source contracts, defying the World Trade Organization to  force green energy jobs in Ontario, and ironically ignoring the input of the bloated multiple-agency energy bureaucracy they had set up which merely became grazing grounds for overpaid bureaucrats and consultants.   Energy is a real mess in Ontario.

So what will happen now? The least negative outcome is an even longer delay in starting construction of the new build reactors. The worst result is a decision to drop them altogether and perhaps postpone/cancel the refurbishment of Darlington. Assuming McGuinty’s party will be defeated in the election likely next year neither of the other parties is particularly keen on nuclear power. The NDP has long opposed it on ideological grounds but the big surprise is that the PC party, up until now a traditional supporter of nuclear power, has recanted and is now talking about importing hydroelectricity from neighboring provinces instead of more nuclear.

Overlaying the gloomy political picture are increasing qualms in the business community about the economics of nuclear particularly when compared to natural gas. This coupled with the complete inability of the nuclear industry to finish projects within a factor of two of the original budget and schedule is creating doubts in influential circles. The decision not to refurbish Gentilly is a recent example of where these perceptions lead.  It’s not so much McGuinty’s departure itself that will be the problem but unfortunately the precipitation of factors already out there occasioned by it may well result in a new negative attitude toward nuclear power on the part of decision makers.   I’m afraid the future of nuclear power in Ontario (and that essentially means Canada) is looking very grim indeed.

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.