The only leader in Canada’s nuclear program departs

Duncan Hawthorne’s watch has ended

Canada’s nuclear industry shows signs of circling the drain with bad news on many fronts. However, for me the most negative recent development is the retirement of Duncan Hawthorne after fifteen years at the helm of Bruce Power.

Duncan was the only true leader in Canada’s nuclear industry. (Using the past tense refers to his time at Bruce although he is still very much alive.) Leader is a word used casually in many contexts to simply mean the person in charge. Authentic leadership, the ability to motivate, unite and inspire people to accomplish set objectives, is a rare quality.  Duncan was able to do that very successfully in building and operating Bruce Power.

Duncan had a vision of where he wanted to take his company and he was able to convince his employees to buy into it by among other means bringing unionized workers in as profit-sharing partners in the corporation rather than their usual role as opponents to management.

He knew the names of most of his people and managed by continually walking around his facilities. He was approachable and encouraged employees to come to him with their ideas and problems. He was very good at this because he had come up through the ranks of the UK nuclear industry himself and so had a rapport based on understanding of all levels of the organization.

Duncan had a charismatic personality. He had a great sense of humor and with his distinctive accent was a very entertaining speaker. One of his best bits I remember was his story about how he knew he had arrived in management in the UK when the phone in his new office had “lots of buttons on it”. He was also adept at interacting with the media and was the only credible spokesman for the Canadian nuclear industry because he actually knew what he was talking about.

He skillfully steered Bruce Power through the continual incompetent screw ups of Ontario’s energy policy and managed to navigate around its openly corrupt “cash-for-access” government. In the end he got an agreement from them that will enable Bruce Power to refurbish its remaining reactors so ensuring its long-term future. To say the least he kept his shareholders happy.

Duncan believed in his community and contributed a lot to the quality of life in the areas surrounding the plant.  I think it is fair to say that he was very highly regarded by the people there. So much so that a regional clinic was recently named after him.

Another thing I very much respect him for was his announced decision to become a Canadian citizen.  I’m not sure whether this actually happened but knowing him it probably did. His commitment to the country is in stark contrast to the motley assortment of mercenary twits imported for higher management in other components of our nuclear enterprise.

I’m sorry to see Duncan go for many reasons. On a personal level although I didn’t agree with some of his ideas, I found him a good person to deal with. On a professional level, he was the true leader of our nuclear industry and we are now effectively leaderless – a bad position particularly in tough times like the present.

Bruce Nuclear Waste Repository: The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time – Part IV Economic & Political

When you find yourself in a hole stop digging.

People get so wrapped in their own activities that they don’t see the wider picture. We are all guilty of that to some extent.  Scientists and engineers in the nuclear industry tend to view situations in terms of technical problems and this is true of the Bruce DGR project. However, the decision to proceed will be made primarily for political and economic reasons as it should be.

Let’s consider economics first. How much will this DGR cost? We’ve haven’t built one in this country yet. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has been conducting a well-planned transparent process eventually leading to establishing a DGR for the burial of used nuclear fuel but construction is still decades in the future. Funding for this DGR has been and will continue to be raised over many years by a small added charge to electricity rates.

The Bruce DGR is another matter. It will be funded by additional taxes and/or electricity charges to Ontarians o is let’s try to estimate its costs. The used fuel DGR planned by NWMO has an estimated cost of $18 billion but $10 billion of that is for transportation giving construction, closure, monitoring costs of about $8 billion.  OPG estimated about $2.1 billion for its DGR in a 2012 letter based on a consultant’s estimate from 2004. Multiplying by pi (Blackett’s rule of nuclear estimates) gives $6.6 billion. The recent Niagara tunnel excavation was completed in 2013 only four years behind schedule and only 50% over budget but this OPG project was hydroelectric and not nuclear.  The US experience also may help. Building the US Yucca Mountain DGR planned for used nuclear fuel cost $15 billion to when work was stopped although it may be restarted. Estimates indicate that WIPP, the US DGR that OPG held up as an example until its accidents earlier this year, has burned up about $5.5 billion to date and total costs are estimated around $9 billion far exceeding its original estimate of $440 million. Based on the foregoing, my nominal estimate for the Bruce DGR is $6-8 billion. That’s a lot of money for an optional project.

As pointed out many times in this blog, the government of Ontario has complete control over OPG. The Liberal party of Ontario has a solid majority mandate to be that government for the next four years. However, in the recent election all the constituencies along the eastern shore of Lake Huron voted for the opposition Progressive Conservative party including Huron-Bruce where the DGR would be located.  It’s inconceivable that the Liberals would allow a tasty multi-billion dollar chunk of make-work pork to go to the Kincardine area simply to please its citizen who voted against them. It just makes no political sense and for that reason alone the DGR project is a non-starter.

The Ontario government is faced with a scary financial deficit.  They’re looking to cut budgets in the face of the pressing needs to replace $400 billion worth of crumbling infrastructure such as roads, bridges, public housing, transit, sewers and a multitude of other essential replacements and repairs.  Although it is not in that category of down-to earth rebuilding, it is arguable that OPG’s Darlington refurbishment project would provide economic stimulus especially to preserve the high-value high-tech nuclear industry.  Most of the companies associated with refurbishment are located in Liberal suburban or urban ridings including Darlington itself.  Personally I think refurbishment keeps the Canadian nuclear industry alive preserving the nuclear option for the future.

It is predictable there will be savings from deep staff cuts at OPG as it goes from the current ten reactors to four by 2020. It is also likely that OPG’s scandalously lavish pension plan (the company contributes four dollars for each employee dollar) will be scaled down. An independent committee on government assets has also just recommended that OPG be split into separate hydroelectric and nuclear parts. The next stage could well be leasing the nuclear part to Bruce Power who would much better manage OPG’s nuclear assets.

The projected cuts at OPG will make it more likely the refurbishment projects (at least the first reactor) will go forward provided they stay on schedule and on budget. The refurbishment budget is in the order of $15 billion an amount, if history is any guide, will be substantially over run. The DGR project would add a further $6-8 billion dollar project (assuming no cost overruns) on top of refurbishment. There’s no way the cash-strapped Ontario government is going to allow that. The taxpayers of Ontario will be made to pay for these additional nuclear program costs either through higher electricity bills (an increasing barrier to attracting new manufacturing to the province) or through higher taxes, both unappealing politically.

OPG senior management claim there is a “business case” for the DGR compared to the costs of continued above-ground storage. (One might question the real-world business experience of OPG senior management?) The documentation around the project shows the DGR advantage is thin even using low-balled construction costs. This margin would completely disappear when the usual overruns appear.  Some may think I’m being too hard on OPG to which I would reply it’s because they have had such an abysmal track record for not being able to bring nuclear projects in on time and on budget.

As explained in a previous post the Bruce DGR is not needed. A feasible solution is to leave the low-level operating waste in above-ground storage where it is now for few a hundred years after which its radioactivity levels will have decayed to a few percent of its initial level. At that point it could be safely placed in a well-designed land fill. The intermediate level waste, consisting mainly of used metal reactor parts arising from refurbishment and decommissioning, could also be left in above-ground storage as it is now or it could be buried in a designated section of the NWMO DGR eventually to be constructed for used nuclear fuel hopefully at a site far from important bodies of water.

My advice to OPG is to stop digging and abandon the Bruce DGR project in the face of the compelling economic and political reasons why it is simply not going to be allowed to happen.


Canada’s nuclear industry needs leadership

Strong leadership will be needed for our nuclear industry to survive the coming decade.

The problems of the nuclear industry are often portrayed by its members as originating in public fear fanned by hostile critics and the media. Certainly there’s some truth in that but in my opinion that neglects the main reasons for its decline namely a lack of influential politicians willing to go to bat for the industry and the fact that there are very few nuclear leaders in Canada.

Dr. David Keyes was one such leader. During the world’s first major nuclear accident at Chalk River’s NRX reactor in 1952, Keyes stood at the lab’s gatehouse calmly smoking his pipe and greeting workers by name as they evacuated. As the leader of the lab, his actions damped down any panic that could have occurred and in fact he remained on site for most of the accident. Although Keyes had long departed by the time I arrived in the late 1960’s, old-timers still remembered “daddy Keyes” with respect and affection as an avuncular but strong leader.

Other industry leaders emerged in the years after Keyes who developed the CANDU reactor and pioneered its adoption by the utilities. We had politicians both federal and provincial that backed nuclear energy and pushed its growth in spite of the objections of anti-nuclear organizations as is now happening in places like Korea, Taiwan and India but that’s all gone now in Canada.

The privatization in 2001 of eight nuclear reactors of the former Ontario Hydro to form Bruce Power has proved very successful, achieving excellent performance primarily based on the strong effective leadership of Duncan Hawthorne. He has transformed the former corporate culture of Ontario Hydro to a profitable business model, has driven its high safety record, has earned the loyalty and respect of his employees and brought the unions in as partners instead of adversaries all the while keeping his shareholders happy. Although I certainly don’t agree with some of his moves, overall he remains the only credible spokesperson for the nuclear industry in Canada and its only real leader.

On the other hand the nuclear component of OPG (Ontario Power Generation) is badly in need of leadership. To be fair OPG operates in a public service environment where leadership is only the prerogative of politicians advised by legions of know-nothing fart catchers who qualified for their jobs by putting up signs and handing out literature during the minister du jour’s election campaign. Unlike Bruce Power OPG can’t lobby politicians or advertise at Maple Leaf games. Also different is the domination of OPG by rapacious unions resulting in lavish salaries and many redundant jobs. The OPG hierarchy gives me the impression of being transient and mercenary. For example, how many of the OPG imported brass have shown a commitment to this country by becoming Canadian citizens?

The coming refurbishments of ten reactors (six at Bruce and four at OPG’s Darlington station) will entail intense competition for limited resources that I called the “choke point” in a previous post. My bet is Bruce power will run rings around OPG in the contest. OPG’s reaction is the great refurbishment plan exercise by OPG documented elsewhere on this blog, an exercise in bureaucracy that proves my point that OPG management is only able to administer rather than lead. The coming refurbishments will require a high degree of cooperation and coordination that simply won’t happen between competing nuclear entities. By the way it was just announced that the plan is already more than $200 million over budget before implementation even starts in 2016

The shutdown of the six other reactors at Pickering by 2020 will cause massive layoffs that even the OPG unions with the greatest possible degree of splitting existing jobs into multiple new ones (“feather bedding”) will be unable to avert. In most cases the axed employees will not have the skill set or experience to contribute to the refurbishments. For the good of the industry one would like to see the best employees retained but this can only happen in a nuclear entity combing both Bruce Power and OPG. After 2020, OPG with four reactors will be the tail to Bruce Power’s dog with eight

For all of these reasons the only practical solution I can see to avoid future chaos is to merge the nuclear parts of OPG into Bruce Power by leasing the four Darlington reactors to them. This should have been done years ago and whether the politicians can overcome their ideological differences enough to do it remains to be seen

Warning to the nuclear industry: beware the gasman

If there are any problems with refurbishment, gas is waiting in the wings ready to replace nuclear generation.

I gave a talk on the status of nuclear power at the CERI Natural Gas conference in Calgary this week and learned a lot about the situation of the Natural Gas (NG) industry. Frankly I hadn’t realized the world had changed so much in a few short years.

The development of increasingly sophisticated and effective technologies for the fracking extraction of gas has led to a profound revolution in gas markets. There are now vast reserves of gas available at low prices. As one person at the conference said “we are awash in cheap gas”. For example, just the state of Pennsylvania has gone from producing about 0.7 Bcf/day (billion cubic feet per day) in 2009 to almost 10 Bcf/day in 2013, a production level similar to that of Alberta. That state has gone from an importer of gas to a major exporter in a few years.

Such rapid and dramatic changes have come about from the fracking exploitation of large areas of gas deposits (“plays” as the gas people like to call them) such as the Marcellus and Utica plays in the US northeast just to the south of lakes Erie and Ontario. Consequently the geography of gas markets has shifted. The gas now used in Ontario is increasingly imported from US Marcellus producers rather than from Alberta.

In the last few years, very large gas deposits exploitable by fracking comparable in size to the Marcellus formation have been identified in north east British Columbia and Alberta notably the Montney and Horn River Basin plays. The BC government is encouraging the export of this gas via pipelines to the coast and then by LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) tankers to Asian markets. However, this plan requires a big capital investment for new pipelines and LNG terminals and several years to obtain permits for their construction. Until then, this gas is stranded.

Therefore, Canadian producers are looking hard for new markets for large amounts of cheap gas. Electricity production is one possibility. Alberta will likely replace its current coal-fired generators with combined cycle gas generation but this would make only a small dint in the available supply. Replacing Ontario’s nuclear generators with gas-fired generation would consume a lot more gas. One panelist at the conference openly expressed the view that if refurbishment failed (with the implicit hope that it would) then a significant opportunity for gas would arise.

In the nuclear industry, we’ve always been told gas wasn’t a feasible base load generation option for Ontario because there wasn’t enough gas and it would cost too much. The revolutionary changes in gas supply and pricing mean that neither statement is true any longer. Now it would be possible to negotiate long (say 30-50 year) attractively priced gas contracts to generate electricity at rates competitive with today’s nuclear plants. Combined cycle natural gas generating plants can be built rapidly (about 2 years from green field) at low capital cost (about $ 1 billion for 800 MW) for electricity at similar wholesale or lower rates to nuclear plants. It appears to me that such a transition from nuclear to gas would now be feasible. I would imagine this issue is discussed in the Bruce Power board since it is partly owned by Trans Canada, a major player in gas and gas transmission.

Of course, nuclear generation still has the advantage that unlike gas generation it doesn’t produce green house gas emissions. However, if the refurbishment projects start to incur large cost overruns and schedule slippages, I’m not sure how well the climate change argument would hold up with politicians and the public. Incidentally, it seems Quebec hydroelectric exports to the US north east are declining making another a source of “green” electricity available.

The refurbishment projects must be delivered on time and on budget for Canada’s nuclear industry to survive. Complacency based on past attitudes such as “they need the reactors back on line so they’ll pay anything” would be fatal with the gasman watching so closely.

The Hearings on the Deep Geological Repository at Bruce

These hearings which concluded at the end of October 2013 concerned Ontario Power Generation’s plan to build a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) at its Bruce nuclear site to bury low level (LLW) and intermediate level (ILW) nuclear waste.

The story we are asked to believe is that Bruce area municipal politicians approached OPG in 2004 with their own plan to build this DGR. The motivation was that their towns needed money and the locals were nuclear friendly. OPG, the ever benevolent organization that it is, decided that it would like to have a DGR and agreed to pay the surrounding municipalities some $35M over a similar number of years. OPG then discovered much to its surprise and delight that the local geology was suitable even if the DGR would be built very near Lake Huron. They then applied to the CNSC which in turn set up a panel to hear the environmental arguments pro and con.

Why does OPG want to build the DGR at Bruce so near the Great Lakes? Why do they need to build it now given they have lots of room to safely store the waste for decades? I find it rather cute that the answer to both of these key questions is the same namely that local municipalities want it. In my opinion there is no need for a DGR for decades and when the time comes for one the Bruce site isn’t an appropriate place for it.

One of the local mayors is the preferred media spokesman for the DGR rather than an OPG executive presumably in order to maintain the script. I don’t think anyone is buying this story but on the plus side we should give OPG credit for not using “once upon a time” in their media releases.

To put it kindly the issue of what’s going to be buried in the DGR has evolved with time. At first it was just LLW and ILW (200,000 cubic metres) from routine reactor operations in proportions of 80% and 20% respectively.

As far as the stuff OPG said originally that they are going to bury I wouldn’t personally be upset if the whole lot was dumped off a pier into the lake at Bruce. The level of activity per unit volume is very small and the dilution factor is so huge that I wouldn’t expect more than a miniscule increase in the total radioactivity of the Great Lakes water I drink. Heaven knows there are numerous other chemicals and pharmaceutical residues already in the water. However, I wouldn’t want to see old overalls or mop heads floating around and I would hope OPG reduced such items to ashes prior to them going into the repository.

OPG has now started talking about putting the waste from refurbishment of the Darlington reactors and presumably also from decommissioning the Pickering reactors in the DGR up to another 200,000 cubic metres. This “mission creep” for the DGR is a huge step beyond from the original plan of waste from reactor operations and several intervenors pointed that out at the hearings.

Human nature being what it is, in a decade or so I would expect OPG to start talking about this DGR as a repository for high level (used fuel) waste. It’s easy to imagine the type of arguments that would be made: we already have a DGR and we don’t need to spend the extra money building another one; the Bruce DGR is working well and the locals accept it; adding the used fuel would only mean a relatively small expansion to the existing DGR; and, it’s proven too hard to get anyone else to take the used fuel and the Bruce DGR is now the only option. I don’t believe I’m being overly cynical in predicting that the Bruce DGR could well become the one and only DGR for Canada. The CNSC says that this would be illegal. This is true under current legislation but, as we have seen recently with environmental assessments, laws can easily be changed by Parliament.

I would suggest that the only type of undertaking that would guarantee that no used fuel (and if desired no decommissioning/refurbishment wastes) could be buried in this DGR would be a treaty with the Saugeen Ojibwa Nation (SON). SON has been a key player during the hearings questioning many of the issues mentioned above. Treaties with First Nations are very sensitive and, unlike in the past, are hard to break in today’s social context. More generally this could be an opportunity for First Nations as a group to demand from the federal government a comprehensive treaty covering all aspects of radioactive materials in and around the Great Lakes (Remember Bruce Power’s attempt to ship its steam generators via the lakes.) Such a document would serve to clarify future relations between the nuclear industry and First Nations to the benefit of both parties. There’s lots of time to do this because there is no urgency whatever for the DGR.

One development at the hearings I found very disturbing. Prior to the hearings the Ontario police came to the homes of some intervenors who opposed the DGR and telephoned others in order to “maintain order” although there was never any prospect of even mild public protests. They also stationed plain clothes police in the hearing rooms to discourage protests. I realize that the readers of this blog are from some 70 countries outside of Canada and may not understand or care about what is politely called “asymmetric policing” in Ontario. In a nutshell this means the OPP, the Ontario provincial police, take positions on public issues as ordered by the Ontario Liberal Party ruling the province. They then selectively enforce existing laws ignoring those that do not conform to the party’s position. The OPP has this in common with other infamous police forces that I won’t name here to avoid excessive drama.

This psychological intimidation and harassment of hearing witnesses by the police was appalling. I don’t agree with much of what the intervenors said or would have said. Nevertheless it was their democratic right to have free speech without police threats. I was unpleasantly surprised that the Panel would continue the hearings after police interference was proved. In this respect the Panel did a poor job of preserving the integrity of the process. It would have been much better to have an experienced judge in charge to ensure fairness rather than an amateur Panel chair. For this reason I feel the hearings were badly flawed and the Panel’s conclusions should be considered as tainted.

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.

Pushing the Limits of CANDU Pressure Tubes

The basic issue at the Pickering hearings was the request of OPG to operate the four Pickering B reactors beyond the previously assumed lifetime of their pressure tubes. The lifetime was set in the past to be 210,000 hours (more accurately Effective Full Power Hours) and running Pickering B to 2018/2020 would according to OPG push the lifetime to 247,000 hours. With 8,760 hour/year and a capacity factor of 0.8 we get roughly 7,200 hour/year. At this rate 216,000 hours is about 30 years and 37,000 more hours amounts to an extra 5 years. With the exception of reactor number 8 which will reach the limit around 2015, it looks to me that the other three Pickering B reactors will be at the 210,000 hour limit in 2014.

This issue has wider implications and indeed could be the most critical issue for Canada’s CANDU program. For example, the six Bruce Power reactors will need refurbishment soon if the resources are available. Once again rough calculations indicate that some of them are already within a year or two of 210,000 hours in part due to their very high capacity factors in recent years. So what will the CNSC do when confronted with the same issue at Bruce? Cancelling the Bruce licenses just isn’t feasible and so one can safely assume that sometime in the period 2014-15 we will see ten reactors (four Pickering B, two Bruce A and four Bruce B) all operating with pressure tubes past the 210,000 hours mark.

It is already well-known and observed phenomenon that CANDU pressure tubes deform as they age. This is due to an effect known as radiation-induced ‘creep’, the latter meaning the metal becomes like a very slow flowing plastic driven by the heat generated by fission in the uranium fuel. An American colleague of mine used to call CANDU reactors “the world’s largest creep experiments”. Creep arises on the atomic level from the displacement of metal atoms by high energy neutrons (before they are slowed down by the moderator) and by the embedding (ingress) of hydrogen isotope atoms in the metal forming hydrides which further degrade the metal’s macroscopic properties.

In operating CANDUs various measures are taken to control the dimensional changes of the aging pressure tubes, for example, the ends of expanding tubes may be selectively clamped to encourage uniform growth in both directions. The tubes also sag and swell as they age changing the geometry of the nuclear assembly thus affecting both its thermal and neutronic aspects. How much of this degradation a reactor can take before it becomes unsafe to operate? This is a very complex issue and a great deal of R&D has been done on this subject since the inception of the CANDU concept. The reason was that in order for a natural uranium/heavy water reactor to work (achieve criticality) its metal structure has to be minimized to avoid excessive neutron losses. Therefore, the pressure tubes had to be thin and it was acknowledged from the outset that creep would be a problem in CANDUs.

The history of CANDU pressure tubes was bumpy at the beginning. In 1974 leaks were discovered near the rolled end joints in some tubes in Pickering A reactors. This problem was attributed to delayed hydride cracking which arose from how the joints had been fabricated and was corrected by replacing the faulty tubes. In August of 1983, a pressure tube ruptured in Pickering A reactor number 2, some twelve years after it began operation. There was no leak-before-break in this case which caused dismay since it was always touted as a safety feature. This failure was attributed to friction damage caused by spacers around the tube and also to the alloy the tube was made from. This accident required the re-tubing of first two Pickering A reactors with tubes made of a better alloy. (AECL also lost the royalty it had on the electricity produced which was the start of its unremitting financial woes.) This event resulted in even more R&D on pressure tube degradation from which a target limit of 210,000 hours was set.

So what has happened to change this limit? What is the scientific basis for extending the lifetime of the pressure tubes? To me this is the critical question. In the first place it is reassuring that not much negative has happened in the pressure tube field for many years which would indicate that at least 210,000 hours is a reasonable limit. However, in my opinion OPG hasn’t done a very good job of informing the public of the science behind their request to go to 247,000 hours. The Pickering hearing transcript offers little in the way of evidence that a change is justified. OPG talked about a research program started in 2009 that produced some eighteen reports submitted to the CNSC. I haven’t been able to find copies of these reports on the CNSC or OPG website. Comments made about this program at the hearings didn’t convince me of its validity.

More significantly I can’t find any mention of this work in international journals such as the Journal of Nuclear Materials or Metal Physics. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places? A result with such high impact on reactor operation and safety should be peer reviewed by refereeing for publication in a high quality publication and preferably presented at widely attended international conferences. To me it is ironic that the CNSC stressed the need for peer reviewed publication of the epidemiology work showing no increased cancers near nuclear stations but not for the pressure tube program, the main topic of the hearings. By peer review I don’t mean sending the results to a few foreign experts for their opinion – this isn’t anything like proper peer review. I’m afraid that the CNSC too often does that because it buys into the nuclear industry’s unhealthy obsession about propriety information to the detriment of any realistic quality control over the science involved.

In the final analysis it boils down to the old British expression “suck and see” meaning inspections at reactor outages to see how the tubes are doing; the reactors have indeed become “creep experiments”. Sudden (without leak-before-break) failure of any one pressure tube could be handled by the existing safety systems as the 1983 accident showed. I suspect that’s the basis of the CNSC granting OPG a limited license extension to operate reactors up to the 210,000 hour limit. However, I doubt one would want to continue to operate any of the Pickering B reactors after one tube failed. What would that do to the continued operation of the six at Bruce? The nuclear enterprise in Ontario has entered perilous waters where the failure of just one pressure tube could sink it.