Request from a journalist:

The Plight of Canada’s Nuclear Industry

 

questions from a Journalist,

answered by Gordon Edwards

 

August 2011

 

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Question:

 

I am currently working on a piece on the general development of Canadian nuclear programs, with a focus on Albertan policy, and  a look at future opportunities for nuclear R&D. If its alright with you,  I have some questions for you.

 

What is the planned trajectory of Canadian nuclear energy?  Where will it be going in the future, both short and long term?

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Answer:

 

The Canadian nuclear industry is in a period of demoralization and confusion, brought about by a number of embarrassing  technological and managerial failures as well as the inability to find an adequate market for their reactors.

 

Before the year 2000, the plan was clear: 

 

(1) The aging NRU reactor at Chalk River Ontario, responsible for producing the lion's share of the world's medical isotopes, would be replaced by two brand  new MAPLE reactors -- each capable of doing the job of the NRU.  

 

(2) The domestic and overseas markets would flock to buy the brand new ACR = Advanced CANDU  reactor, combining the best aspects of the old CANDU designs with innovative features that would make the ACR cheaper to build and safer to operate.

 

(3) The existing aging fleet of CANDU reactors would be refurbished (rebuilt) and restored to their original power and integrity for an additional two or three decades of service.

 

So what has happened in the last decade or so?

 

(1) The MAPLE reactors turned out to be a fiasco.  They did not function as they were designed to. They were judged to be inherently unsafe and so they are now being dismantled without ever having fulfilled any useful purpose.  Meanwhile the lack of an earthquake resistant electrical supply system for the NRU  reactor precipitated a shutdown of that reactor, which led to an international shortage of medical isotopes, which led to the firing of the President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and an extraordinary midnight session of Parliament to order the  restart of the 50 year old nuclear reactor -- only to have the NRU spring a radioactive leak that required more than a year's shut-down to repair.

 

All of this was an enormous blow to the reputation of Canada's nuclear flagship, AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited) which was publically reviled by the Harper government as a "sinkhole" for taxpayer's money and promptly put up for sale -- without much enthusiasm from prospective buyers.  Finally, in recent months, AECL's reactor division has been sold to SNC Lavalin for the fire-sale price of $15 million, accompanied with a $75 million grant to SNC Lavalin from the Government of Canada to continue trying to finish the design of the ACR.  This episode represents a monumental failure at the technological, political, financial, and regulatory levels -- not to mention the accompanying  international humiliation.

 

(2) The ACR has twice been withdrawn from pre-licencing review by outside agencies -- first in the USA, and then in the UK.  The design is still incomplete after decades of work, and is already looking like a future technology whose time is past.  It is no accident that the reactors proposed for the Peace River region of Alberta, while initially intended to be Advanced CANDU reactors, were rather quickly supplanted by other competing designs -- even though Bruce Power's entire operating experience has been with CANDU technology.  It didn't help that Bruce Power's plans to build two new CANDU reactors at the Bruce site were unceremoniously dropped even after the Environmental Assessment process had  begun and financial support for intervenors had been approved and disbursed.  

Of course Bruce was not the only nuclear company suffering embarrassing setbacks -- the newest Areva reactor design -- the first of which (EPR) was being built at Olkiluoto in Finland --  had already attracted much international attention for being many years behind schedule and billions of euros over budget. Nor did it help that nuclear construction received consistently bad financial ratings and investors proved unwilling to invest in nuclear projects without iron-clad federal loan guarantees.  Of course, post-Fukushima, the prospects look even worse, with countries such as Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and even Japan itself looking seriously at putting a complete halt to new nuclear reactor construction.  But even in the years before Fukushima, the nuclear renaissance was simply not happening.  Year after year, there were far more new renewable energy installations being built than nuclear plants, the latter being actually in a state of "negative  growth" with more reactors being shut down than started.   From 2005  to 20010, for example, nuclear's contribution to global electrical supply  dropped from 16% to 14%. 

 

The bright spots are few.  True, Ontario has committed to build two  new reactors at Darlington, but the ACR -- which was considered to be the front runner originally -- has dropped back into second, third, or  even fourth place after an outrageously expensive price tag from AECL threw the Ontario government into a traumatic "sticker shock", resulting in an "indefinite delay" in the proposed new-build project.  Sales of CANDUs to China and to Romania have been encouraging to the promoters,  but at much too slow a rate to sustain the industry and with a very uncertain future. (Romanian future prospects are sparse and China has announced a slowdown of its nuclear plans after Fukushima.)

 

(3) Refurbishment has not been the great success that it was supposed to be. Of four reactors shut down at Pickering A for refurbishment, only  two ended up being started up at a cost about 3 times greater than it was supposed to cost for all 4 reactors, and a time frame about 4 times longer than predicted. OPG (Ontario Power Generation) subsequently decided not to even try to refurbish the four Pickering B reactors, and  as a result those four will all be shut down over the next 9 years.  Thus the number of operating reactors at Pickering will have dwindled from 8 (in 1990) to 2 or less (in 2020).

 

The refurbishment of the Point Lepreau reactor in New Brunswick was  supposed to cost $1.5 billion and take 18 months.  It is already 3 years behind schedule and a billion dollars over budget.  Moreover the NB  government is thinking of suing the federal government for the additional  one billion needed to purchase replacement power during the artificially  prolonged shutdown. These episodes have further damaged the reputation  of AECL, and some very embarrassing setbacks occurred as well  -- e.g. when two brand new steam turbines, each weighing about  100 tonnes, went to the bottom of Saint John Harbour when the barge  carrying them flipped over; or when at least four months were lost when  the 380 new calandria tubes were incorrectly installed in the core of the  reactor even though it was clear from the outset that the installation was  unacceptable (because the seals leaked), necessitating the removal of all  those tubes and then their re-installation after extensive polishing of the metallic surfaces.  This was an enormous waste of time and money,  reflecting very poorly on the technological and managerial competence  of AECL.

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Question:

 

Recently, Germany has been cutting funding for their nuclear program because  of public outcry in the wake of Fukushima. This kind of ideological shift in a  country normally seen as, if not explicitly pro-nuclear, then one of the more  accepting and rational countries could represent a very large change of priorities  for developed countries with clean energy aspirations in general. 

 

Is there any possibility of something like this happening in Canada,  in terms of a public reaction?  Would this be something you would encourage?  Do people seem to care?

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Answer:

 

The sale of AECL, the inability of Canadian nuclear engineers to design reactors in a timely and reliable fashion, the persistent cost over-runs and scheduling failures, and the growing impatience of the Canadian government to continue using taxpayer's money to pay for the industry's mistakes, is a clear indication that nuclear advocates are no longer going to be given the benefit of the doubt or as easy access to the Canadian treasury. There is indeed the possibility that the nuclear age -- in terms of new reactors, which have not been built for over thirty years in Canada -- is already over.  Of course the problems caused by nuclear energy will last for centuries after the last reactor has been permanently shut down, but it is quite likely that very few new reactors will be built in Canada, possibly none at all.  Even before Fukushima, there was an expert panel (put together in 2010 by Fortune magazine) that looked at the future of nuclear power in the USA, and they concluded that the maximum number of new nuclear plants likely to be built in the next 10 years in the USA is three, max.

 

See http://tinyurl.com/3koxamk

 

There were several other independent reports in 2010 that commented on the failure of the nuclear renaissance; for example the 2010 Swiss "Prognos" report:

 

See  http://tinyurl.com/3zdb9tg 

 

and the Canadian 2010 CIGI report: 

 

See  http://au.sys-con.com/node/1273879

 

and the 2010 Citibank report:

 

See  http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=50308

 

And there were similar indications back in 2009, when even the US FERC chairman chimed in:

 

See  http://tinyurl.com/4x9j7tv

 

as well as Scientific American magazine:

 

See  http://tinyurl.com/c977lm

 

As for Canada --

 

CCNR is calling for a National Inquiry -- a Royal Commission of Inquiry -- into the future of the nuclear industry in Canada.  The object would be for Canadians to have a forum to decide whether they wanted taxpayers money to continue to be used lavishly to prop up this industry that has not been able to stand on its own two feet (economically speaking) since Day One.  There has never been a national debate in this country about the nuclear industry, despite the fact that the entire industry was created by the government and would never have survived without lavish subsidies.  

 

See http://tinyurl.com/3ed9eth .

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Question:

 

Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors have recently emerged as a kind of low risk,  low cost alternative to conventional reactors.

See http://tinyurl.com/3sscqp9

Do you see this kind of technology as a step forward for responsible energy? In your opinion, is there a place in Alberta for this technology?

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Answer:

 

Despite the enthusiasm of its promoters, this technology is plagued by   misinformation and half-truths -- most important is the fact that this technology does not yet exist, despite more than half a century of research efforts.  

 

Alberta would be foolish to invest in a brand-new, hitherto untested nuclear reactor technology.  Alberta does not have the necessary depth or experience  in nuclear reactor technology to cope with the teething problems which  inevitably attend new untested designs.

 

See my article  Thorium Reactors: Back to the Dream Factory

at  http://ccnr.org/Thorium_Reactors.html  

 

I hope these paragraphs are of some use in addressing your questions.  Please don't hesitate to ask if there are some aspects overlooked.

 

Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President,

Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.