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

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.

Where will Ontario’s new Reactors be built – Darlington or Bruce?

Location is not only important in real estate but also in the reactor business.

To start by pointing out the obvious, the Bruce site is leased by Bruce Power, a private company and the Darlington site is operated by Ontario Power Generation OPG), a provincial government organization. Both sites are owned by OPG.

It’s clear that the best location for the first new reactors would be at an existing nuclear site. Pickering is probably too small to comfortably accommodate new reactors and that leaves Bruce or Darlington. Both have vigorous local boosters promoting the large economic benefits sure to flow to the surrounding communities. Darlington is located closer to the GTA and there are potential problems building more transmission lines from Bruce to Toronto. However, these should not be the decisive issues.

The more fundamental question is where would the construction of the new reactors be more successful?

On the basis of their recent performance in refurbishing existing CANDU reactors, Bruce Power has been the more successful organization. The cost overruns in returning Pickering units 4 and 1 to service and the consequent permanent shut down of units 2 and 3 did not inspire confidence in the project management capability of OPG. On the other hand, Bruce Power was able to return Bruce units 3 and 4 to service relatively quickly although without re-tubing and its multi-billion dollar project to bring back units 1 and 2 appears to be more or less on track with so far only moderate cost overruns.

The peremptory shutdown of seven CANDU units (Bruce unit 2 was shut down earlier) by Ontario Hydro in 1997 was the definitive end point in what had started out as a technological love affair between Hydro and AECL’s CANDU reactor. It was the culmination of a long period of increasing recriminations between the two companies. The reason for the abysmal performance of these reactors is still not fully explained but I’ll take a shot at it in a forthcoming post. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this discussion that the culture at OPG still tends to blame what they regard as the high maintenance CANDU design as the root of their problems whereas AECL types vehemently defend their reactor and attribute the problems to managerial incompetence at Ontario Hydro.

The point of this much over-simplified history is that Darlington is unlikely to be a hospitable site for building ACR’s in spite of the all-is-forgiven noises OPG and AECL executives emit from time to time. This would not be the case at Bruce Power where my guess is that an attractive deal would trump any history.

Let’s suppose for the moment that Darlington was selected as site for the new build reactors. Would this mean that Ontario had essentially chosen to build Areva EPR’s or Westinghouse AP1000’s in preference to ACR’s? Certainly Areva or Westinghouse could come in and build turn-key light water reactors and then train the personnel to operate them which would probably be OPG’s preference. However, if the business terms were right, Bruce Power could lease part of the Darlington site and collaborate with AECL in building and operating ACR’s or other CANDU’s.  

We’ll just have to wait to learn how Ontario views the relationship between site selection and reactor selection.  To date their policy has been to deny any relationship between the two as evidenced by their concept of the generic environmental assessment as a way to speed up reactor approvals. 

As H.L. Menken said “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”