Camera Atomica

If people had been introduced to electricity by the electric chair, they wouldn’t have accepted it so easily.

This is a remarkable exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario of photographs, posters and other artifacts from the beginning of the atomic age in the 1940’s up to present times that should interest everyone in the nuclear industry. I would highly recommend it and you can see it until November 15, 2015.

More information can be found at http://www.ago.net/camera-atomica

As one would expect the show touches in some way on every nuclear issue and I’ll make only my own observations on a few of them.

We have just marked the 70th anniversary of the two nuclear bombings in Japan in 1945 that ended World War II. There is a continuing debate about whether nuclear weapons should have been used but the show has no balance on this point. It shows pictures of the terrible injuries and devastation caused by the bombs but it does not show the fanaticism of Japanese militarism of that era when Japan’s armed forces committed atrocities in Asia as horrible as those of their Nazi allies in Europe. The issue is whether the nuclear bombings ultimately saved lives by ending this madness and avoiding a bloody invasion of Japan. The exhibit contributes little to this debate.

A consequence of the war ending “atomic” bombs was that everything atomic became fashionable in the US and Canada. There is a photo of a model at the 1952 Toronto Sportsman’s show posing with a radiation monitor and even more bizarre one of a US Navy admiral and his wife cutting a cake in the shape of a mushroom cloud. People loved all things nuclear for the first and perhaps only time in history. Then it was assumed that a nuclear war was survivable and therefore, people should build home fallout shelters where they could wait out the fallout from the war to subside. A sample shelter is illustrated in the exhibit. School children were advised to crouch under their desks and the basements of public buildings were designated and equipped as shelters. As time went on the number of weapons held by the nuclear powers grew into the thousands, too many for an exchange to be survivable, and the shelter concept went out of fashion.

The end of the honeymoon period of the first atomic age came from two sources. The first was the large number of nuclear weapons tests that dragged on from the late 1940s into the 1990s. There is a computer screen in the exhibit that blinks with each test year by year. I had forgotten that more than 2,000 tests actually took place during this period; about half were done by the US with the USSR, France, UK, making up most of the remainder. One can legitimately ask whether the US and the USSR really needed that many weapons tests and it would appear that the intense competition between these powers drove the test numbers to much higher than necessary levels. Whatever the reason the atmospheric fallout from weapon tests was significant and gave rise to the first anti-nuclear movement aimed at baning atmospheric nuclear tests particularly for the sake of developing children.

A second source of public discontent with nuclear weapons was the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) posture adopted by the US and USSR. If one of them attacked the other then it would retaliate with a weight of weapons sufficient to completely annihilate the attacker. Truly a nuclear exchange involving large numbers of weapons would be an Armageddon “end of the world” scenario. The classic 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove depicted an unintended nuclear war set off by a mad general. People who grew up during that era had a fear of world ending nuclear war. The reaction to that overhanging reality was the “ban the bomb/nuclear disarmament” movement that persists in many forms today.

Historically nuclear reactors for electricity production were a spin-off of a very large nuclear military industry. In the US in particular civilian applications grew out of nuclear naval propulsion. For many years up to the 1970s nuclear power was a side show but with its roots in nuclear defence activities.

The exhibit also touches on many nuclear issues including reactor accidents, uranium mining, nuclear proliferation, and radioactive waste that continue to feed the public fear and mistrust of nuclear power. The historical photographs are an impressive record of how these attitudes came about. The electric chair quote at the beginning of this piece sums up the problem the nuclear industry of today has in counteracting a negative nuclear history. Anyone seriously interested in nuclear power should see this exhibition.

Small Modular Reactors II: No Product to Sell

The Road not Taken

Even if you had the necessary funds, you couldn’t buy an SMR simply because there isn’t one developed for commercial deployment. This is not surprising because as argued in the previous post there is no significant market for SMRs. Developing a product for which there is no market only succeeds if you can create a market for something consumers didn’t know they needed (for example home computers, cell phones and many other devices). However, SMRs are not consumer products and we have to look elsewhere for motivation.

In my opinion the push for SMRs arises from many factors the most important being that there is little going on in conventional nuclear activities. The nuclear industry is in decline in most places in the world.   China, India, Russia and a few countries with new nuclear programs are the only places building reactors.

The tag line on this post is the title of a poem by the American poet Robert Frost about a walker in a wood who has to choose a path to take. The last lines are:

Two roads diverged in a wood,

and I—I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Proponents of SMRs in essence say the “road not taken” is the source of nuclear power’s current decline. They claim that the wrong choices were made early in the commercial development of nuclear power and it was these mistakes that ultimately caused today’s decline. They want to reboot the nuclear industry by reverting to earlier reactor concepts especially the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960’s subsequently dropped in favour of the light water reactors that now make up the bulk of today’s reactors.

MSRs are touted to offer advantages in safety, economic s and reduced waste production. In terms of safety it is claimed that there are inherent safety features in the MSR concept – in my opinion there isn’t enough operating experience to prove this claim. Since SMRs would have powers in the order of a few 100 MWe, another argument is that these smaller reactors than would result in smaller accidents than the typical 1,000 MWe water reactor. This might resonate better with the public than the inherently safe claim since there are few if any believers in absolute nuclear safety since Fukushima.

Building 10 SMRs of 100MWe in place of a single 1000 MWe reactor clearly flies in the face of economy-of-scale which proponents admit. Some propose building reactor factories to turn out cookie-cutter SMRs that would avoid this disadvantage but I personally find this dubious. There is also a social economy-of-scale type problem namely that one would have to convince the public in 10 localities to obtain for each of the SMRs a social licence compared to the single one needed for the single large reactor. This would probably be much more difficult and thus, time consuming and costly. SMRs are unlikely to have any economic advantage.

In order for MSRs in particular to produce less nuclear fuel waste would require a fuel recycle with reprocessing probably at the reactor site. This could be very complicated and even, if achieved, a Deep Geological Depository would still be needed for long-lived isotopes that could not be totally consumed in the reactor. This possible advantage is unclear as is its non proliferation claim.

Notwithstanding the reality of SMRs, the presence of many colorful and successful entrepreneurs makes today’s SMR scene lively and interesting. I’ve noted a dozen or more novel nuclear schemes, some driven by business magnates such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. While I very much respect their business acumen, I’m not impressed by their nuclear expertise. Nevertheless, the motivation of people of that stature seems to be to altruistic i.e. to benefit the world by developing novel sources of cheap clean nuclear energy rather than to make even more money. On the crasser side there are some places that hype SMRs because they see manufacturing them as a local economic opportunity (“Podunk, SMR capital of the world”) and of course national nuclear labs who see SMR research as a source of contract research income even if they don’t  buy into the concept.

A further dimension to the SMR story is added by the vociferous and aggressive thorium lobby that sees a rebooted nuclear industry with reactors fueled by thorium instead of uranium. Once again various advantages are claimed from making this substitution. Who knows it might have been better to use thorium from the beginning of commercial nuclear power? However, today’s nuclear industry has too much momentum in investment, research, experience and expertise to ever radically change its direction. A nuclear industry reboot is not going to happen.

My feeling is the nuclear community should persist with evolutionary initiatives such as Generation IV, to improve reactor safety, lower cost and reduce nuclear waste rather than to cram nuclear generation into an inappropriate niche as part of a futile attempt to reboot the industry.

In terms of SMRs the road not taken should remain not taken.

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