Design problems with AREVA EPR and the Westinghouse AP1000 (Updated March11, 2014)

Update: This is one of the most popular posts on this blog and so deserves an update. The EPR continues to limp along. The Finland EPR is now bogged down in lawsuits and startup is further delayed; the EPR at Flamanville France is doing only slightly better. These problems I attribute to an overly elaborate design that is very difficult to construct. In fact, AREVA seems to be veering away from the EPR by pushing a newer design. The AECL reactor ACR-1000 as reported elsewhere in this blog is dead. As for the Hitachi ABWR nobody is going to look at it after Fukushima. The good news is that the Westinghouse AP1000 has overcome its initial problems with new construction going well in China and the US. Plans for new reactor construction in various provinces of Canada have all been squelched. As reported here in other posts, the Canadian nuclear enterprise is now focused on refurbishing the Ontario reactors.

In September, I chatted informally with several AREVA people in France about the construction problems the EPR was having in Finland. Many of them blamed the Finns, especially the Finnish nuclear safety agency, as very difficult customers following what appeared to be the AREVA party line. One engineer was perhaps more frank than his colleagues admitting that “it’s been a long time since anyone built a reactor” which is probably close to the truth.  I also had a glimpse of the second EPR under construction at Flamanville on the Normandy coast. It looked to be going well. I left France with the impression that the schedule slippage and cost overruns on the EPR were just first-of-a-kind teething problems to be expected in building what I consider already an overly engineered and too complex reactor.

Imagine then my dismay when soon afterwards when it was reported that the nuclear regulators of the UK, France and Finland declared that the design of the EPR control system was fundamentally flawed. The operating and safety systems seemingly are not independent! Of course, they must be completely independent to provide the necessary high degree of safety. It’s as if they had built a car with the brake and accelerator systems somehow coupled. If the regulatory judgements turn out to be true then this is a momentous blunder in a reactor specifically engineered to ensure a high degree of safety.  If the designers have failed in such a basic principle then what other mistakes have they made? It is reported that AREVA has now lashed up some work-around analogue system but personally I have lost any residual confidence I may have once had in this design. I guess it also shows the Finns are not so dumb after all.

Over in the other corner the Westinghouse AP1000 has been found to have a faulty structural design for the so-called shield building which surrounds the containment structure as a first line of defence against severe storms and other possible impact events. It seems the shield building cannot take the loads that it has to support, especially the thousands of tons of dousing water at the top of the containment. Apparently this problem has been known to US nuclear regulators for at least a year and various tests and possibly redesigns are underway to correct this major flaw.  This again is a disappointing situation.

Is the GE-Hitachi ABWR faring any better than these two?   It wasn’t a contestant in the Ontario competition and so I haven’t been following it very closely. However, it does seem to be flying somewhat below the radar compared to the EPR and the AP1000.

These problems with its former competitors shouldn’t cause any joy in AECL. Its ACR-1000 is still firmly stuck on the drawing board with no realistic prospects of construction.  While their design “won” the Ontario competition, there is no indication that either the feds or Ontario are willing to incur yet more debt (another $20 to 30 billion or likely much more) in these tough economic times by building two ACRs at Darlington. The two levels of government are supposed to negotiating the cost split but I’m not optimistic.

Meanwhile there is no chance New Brunswick Power (now owned by Hydro Quebec) will build any new reactor after the Pt Lepreau refurbishment fiasco. Saskatchewan is fixated on a research reactor (but only if the feds ante up 75% of the costs).

That leaves Alberta with its own large deficit as the only other prospect for an ACR. Who knows maybe a reactor to get rid of it coal-fired generating plants would help in shielding the oilsands province from the attacks of the warmers? It’s probably better than just being perceived as a province of deniers since the warmers in spite of the recent allegations of scientific fraud have clearly won the day as the great Copenhagen dog and pony show unfolds.  Is that a realistic scenario?  Probably not!   

Let’s hope 2010 proves to be a better year for the nuclear enterprise than 2009.  


The Western Nuclear Reports: II Hiding the Warts

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The Western Nuclear Reports: Part I


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


The Saskatchewan report is at:


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


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


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


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


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


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



Uranium Enrichment for Canada

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.


This line from Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire may well sum up Canada’s position a few years after new reactors requiring enriched uranium, and that’s all of the designs being considered, are built with no Canadian enrichment plant to supply them.


Uranium enrichment could be strategically important for Canada in terms of energy self-sufficiency and sovereignty. At one extreme some would argue that for this reason Canada should not build nuclear reactors that use enriched uranium unless it has its own enrichment plant pointing out that Canada is not reliant on other states for its energy supply now, and should not be in future. On the other hand, Canada is dependent on other countries for vital materials and finished goods of many kinds and enriched uranium would simply be another.


Some articles have ready appeared in the press saying that the Canadian government has already made overtures to the other members of NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) to negotiate permission for an enrichment plant.  The NSG claims to look after the Non-Proliferation Treaty but by granting permission to open nuclear trade with India, it seems its main interest has shifted to creating commercial opportunities for its members rather than preventing weapons proliferation. If that’s the case then it might be difficult for Canada to gain approval from other members of the NSG to compete against them in the profitable enrichment business. No doubt   commercial objections to Canadian enrichment would emerge wrapped in the now very tattered flag of non-proliferation.


For the two foreign competitors for the Ontario reactors, AREVA and Westinghouse, a serious issue is to create spending in Canada to offset the higher percentage of foreign content in their products compared to AECL. The Saskatchewan government has not only been toying with the idea of purchasing reactors but has also expressed interest in adding value to its uranium mining industry. Therefore, both Saskatchewan and Ontario (if it could ever get its act together) might have leverage in their negotiations with foreign reactor suppliers to include an offsetting enrichment plant as part of a reactor purchase deal. This would work particularly well for AREVA since they are already constructing a new enrichment plant in the US with technology licensed from Urenco and they have also been an important player in Canadian uranium mining for many years.


Of course, if the ACR-1000 is selected as part of the new build mix it would have more domestic content than its competitors but then we might end up in a situation where we were short of heavy water on top of having no domestic source for enriched uranium.


In my opinion enrichment should be a purely commercial undertaking or at most a private-public partnership. Personally I’d like to see enrichment as value-added to our uranium exports that stays in Canada but this is a business decision that has to be made by the uranium industry.