Let’s have the nuclear pill at last

Acknowledging the need for easy public access to potassium iodide (KI) pills is a further acceptance of the reality that nuclear accidents could happen in Canada.

Until the Fukushima accident the policy of Canada’s nuclear industry to KI pills was that they shouldn’t be distributed to populations near reactors because it might unnecessarily alarm people and give credence to charges that nuclear power was dangerous.  Similar opinions were held on alerting siren systems, online real time radiation data, evacuation rehearsals, and other accident mitigation measures, all then regarded as talking points for ant-nuclear critics. Thankfully, these opinions of the DOUGS (Dumb Old Utility Guys) had been fading since the Chernobyl accident and have basically disappeared since Fukushima.

We need to understand what KI pills are and what they do.  The thyroid gland in the neck regulates many important functions of our bodies such as “how quickly the body uses energy, makes proteins, and controls how sensitive the body is to other hormones” (quote from Wikipedia).    To function properly, the thyroid needs iodine which is taken up from various food sources or, in places where sufficient iodine isn’t available in the local diet, from iodized table salt. Not surprisingly adequate iodine is also essential for the normal intellectual development of children.The iodizing of salt by adding compounds such as KI to it has proved a very cheap and effective public health measure in most countries of the world.

In a nuclear accident radioactive iodine is released as a gas which can readily be inhaled and so taken up in the thyroid and then can eventually cause thyroid cancer especially in children. By taking KI pills you can load up your thyroid with harmless (non-radioactive) iodine so when exposed to the radioactive type your already iodine-saturated thyroid won’t absorb it. For this to work you need to take the KI pill before any significant release of reactor iodine gets to you. This means you have to have pills on hand and ready to use as soon as you know an accident is happening.

KI pills are very good for protecting thyroids and preventing thyroid cancer in children – both very worthy objectives.  However, they should not be viewed as a preventative or a cure-all for all types of radiation sickness as some uninformed people believe.

KI pills should be distributed to all homes within, say a 20 km radius, of reactors. Not as has been the case for example at Pickering where in a compromise scheme KI pills were stock piled in drugstores. Presumably, you go to your local pharmacy in case of a nuclear accident. There were also pills at local schools but I suppose if there were an accident outside of school hours you have to send your kids to the drugstore. Not only should the pills be in homes but there must also be an effective warning system that tells people living near reactors to take their KI pills.

The regulator and our nuclear utilities are finally considering doing exactly that after knowing since the 1950’s that it was feasible and done in other countries. There can be no excuse for any more foot dragging in providing KI pills to homes around Canadian reactors.

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.

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.

More on the fate of Chalk River labs

If it wasn’t already in trouble enough, the media reported a “near miss” at the Chalk River Laboratory (CRL). It seems an operator at the NRU reactor erroneously shut off a cooling system but the error was immediately corrected by a manager who happened to be in the control room at the time. The only consequences were the doubts that this incident created about operator training and the overall safety culture at CRL.

The resulting negative media coverage comes at a very bad time. The government is looking for a commercial company to operate CRL. I suggested in a post here almost a year ago that a good solution would be to return the labs to the National Research Council (NRC), their original owner in the 1940’s. However, it turned out that I was wrong being much too optimistic about NRC’s ability to navigate in the troubled waters of the current government’s attitudes towards science, and basic research in particular. I read that NRC has been ordered to be “open for business” and it should serve the needs of industry. This is a depressing mantra of knuckle draggers of all political stripes in response to the issue of basic research. I won’t expiate on this theme any further other to say that right now NRC isn’t a feasible refuge for CRL.

It seems inevitable that we will see a commercial company running CRL. I can’t help being reminded of the recent “sale” of the reactor operation of AECL in Mississauga by SNC-Lavalin. Is there anyone out there that thinks in retrospect that this was a good idea? I’ll just confine myself to this question since there are legal strictures that prevent my commenting on the various accusations made against SNC-Lavalin executives for alleged unlawful activities. These unfortunate developments also make off shore sales of CANDU even more unlikely that they were before.

My understanding is that a company is being sought to operate CRL rather than to buy it. I’m sure there is an ideological component in this decision. The political right, now in power in Canada, believes that only private enterprise can operate businesses correctly whereas the left, of course, believes that only governments can. It’s like assuming that more accountants can ensure accountability but they can only document how much is spent foolishly rather than preventing dumb expenditures.

This model of government ownership with commercial operation has been used at US national laboratories for decades. Most of the R&D funding for them still comes from US federal government departments and agencies. In Canada this should be even more the case than in the US. The source of CRL’s funds will overwhelmingly remain the government of Canada and it’s mainly the magnitude of the annual budget that’s in question. To a large extent (80% or more?) the CRL budget must be labour costs. I hope I’m wrong but the main task of the commercial company would likely be drastic staff reductions. The advantages of doing it this way would be that the government could claim that the reductions were done by arm’s length “experienced” business people rather than by the government itself.

Let’s face it, there’s not much R&D of primary importance going on at CRL through no fault of the employees. There will be even less in the future without a new research reactor after NRU closes for good. CRL is very vulnerable to personnel cuts. One thing that could be done is to find new tenants for some of the lab. Is there any other nuclear-related group that could be located at CRL?

Yes. How about moving a large part of the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) operation to CRL? They are now mainly located in Ottawa office buildings and I can see no particular objection to them being at CRL. It might even give them more exposure to nuclear than they now have (couldn’t resist the pun).

There are good reasons for doing this. Governments in the past have decentralized federal activities by moving them out of Ottawa for example Revenue Canada to PEI and NRCan’s CANMET labs to Hamilton. Certainly there would be whining about inconvenience and more travel effort on the part of CNSC staff. On the other hand housing would be much cheaper and they wouldn’t be that far from Ottawa. Commission staff is located at Pickering, Bruce, Darlington and Pt Lepreau with as the CNSC claims no “regulatory capture” and they could even arrange to have a small independent group devoted to regulating CRL. With so many “cops” buzzing around the hive it might also improve the safety culture at CRL.

I don’t really see any serious objection to moving most of the 900 CNSC people to CRL. Some wouldn’t want to move and buying some of them out would be an added benefit in reducing the personnel bloat at the Commission.

Think about the CNSC idea and if you like it, contact Cheryl Gallant, the CRL area MP. If Hamilton MP David Sweet could swing the politics of moving CANMET to Hamilton then she would have a good chance of giving a badly needed boost to her constituency by moving the CNSC to Renfrew County. The two MPs should compare notes and I suspect the CNSC move to CRL could be done fairly easily if approved by the PMO.

It’s easy to forecast the response of bureaucrats to the idea. They will try hard to stall any CNSC move to CRL on the grounds that studies of the lab’s future are underway, nothing can be done for years and besides they didn’t come up with the idea. Personally, I doubt that they will come up with any better idea if they continue to deny the need for a new research reactor. The advantage politicians have is they can tell the bureaucrats what the results of the study should be and when it should be concluded. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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: Final thoughts on the hearings

The Darlington hearings gave a good snapshot of the current state of issues important to Canada’s nuclear industry. The CNSC decision to proceed with the Darlington refurbishment was made some time ago and can be best summarized by the following imaginary but typical dialogue.

There’s a thunder storm outside the hearing room. An intervenor points out that it’s raining but OPG staff denies it. CNSC staff says that rain is beyond the scope of the hearing: the Commission agrees and from then on ignores the rain issue.

The CNSC report on its decision that the refurbishment won’t harm the environment is similar in tone to those problems in elementary logic courses that start with “A always tells the truth, B always lies…” In this case A is OPG and B is all the 690 intervenors who participated. If the CNSC was smart, it would throw an occasional bone to the intervenors but they don’t because as we have seen their public communications skills are seriously underdeveloped. Maybe a better analogy would be to a highly stylized Kabuki play that must be presented every time when major nuclear decisions are to be taken.

Don’t get the wrong idea from my comments. Personally I’m happy that the refurbishment will proceed since it will preserve our nuclear expertise and keep our nuclear experts busy for at least a generation at which time we’ll probably know where the nuclear industry is headed. A few last thoughts on the hearings are in order here but no doubt I’ll return to some of these topics in future posts.

It seems that the Darlington plant is a Cuisinart for fish in the same way that a wind turbine is a Cuisinart for birds. The reactor cooling water channels suck in lake water containing fish and so ensure their demise. In fact this was purported to be the single serious environmental impact of the Darlington plant. So much handwringing over the fate of the fish by several intervenor groups didn’t make want to picket my local fish market. Personally I don’t like to eat fresh water fish. In my opinion salt water fish are far tastier although I’ll concede trout are pretty good. I can’t imagine eating a fish from Lake Ontario – a “round whitefish”, a “goby”, a “sculpin” or some other loathsome creature. However, if I heard correctly, there is at least one commercial fishing operation on the lake. It was opined that a $20k a year payoff would be sufficient to compensate the local fishing industry for the Darlington fish massacre which the head guy from OPG allowed they were willing to shell out. Suggesting that cooling towers should be used was anathema to the OPG types and the number of “independent” studies against them increased every time they were mentioned. In this case CNSC staff tried to hint that cooling towers weren’t the only choice for avoiding lake water cooling but OPG didn’t want to hear about it. Nothing was achieved and I gather this is a standard bit long familiar to audiences of CNSC hearings.

The anti-radiation types were out in full force drawing their usual foolish conclusions from the discredited Linear No Threshold (LNT) model of radiation effects which I like to think of as the “every little bit hurts” concept. The LNT is nonsense because it ignores the body’s DNA and cell repair mechanisms that are our defence against the background radiation from natural sources we are unavoidably exposed to. Without these defenses many species including humans might have long vanished from the earth as a result of cumulative radiation damage. Much stress was placed on tritium by those opposed to Darlington. With only tiny natural production from cosmic rays and the much larger amount dumped into the atmosphere by nuclear weapons tests in the 1950’s and 1960’s decaying by half every twelve years, it’s true that most of the tritium for example detected in drinking water originates from reactors. CANDU reactors are relatively large tritium producers compared to other reactor types but even so the tritium levels in local drinking water are minuscule and unlikely to have any health effects.

Radiation monitoring is a fiasco in the making because the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Health Canada, OPG, Natural Resources Canada and perhaps some local authorities were monitoring emissions from Darlington but none of them was able or willing to publish results in real time and none was trusted by the public. The guy from Health Canada even said the “politics” was the reason that their measurements weren’t available on line in real time. What happens in cases when the measurements of the agencies involved don’t agree for routine emission or particularly in an emergency? The CNSC solution was that they were going to get into monitoring because (don’t laugh yet) the public would trust them over other institutions. We should have in Canada as system at least as good as the one in France. If you are interested take a look at:
http://sws.irsn.fr/sws/mesure/index

Finally a really important topic that actually was beyond the scope of the hearings was OPG’s capability to successfully carry out the refurbishment. Their track record on such projects has been poor as has that of Canada’s nuclear industry as a whole. For example, I couldn’t believe that OPG was not going to replace the steam generators in the Darlington reactors because their corrosion measurements showed they would last for another 20 years or more. This decision has a high potential for disaster if they discover part way through refurbishment that steam generator replacement is in fact needed. This is a topic I plan to return to in other posts.