by Chris TaylorEnvironmental groups are up in arms over news that $500 million could be pumped into repairs for Quebec's ailing nuclear-power plant, Gentilly-2.
Pressure tubes in the reactor core are wearing down faster than expected, a problem that has affected a number of Candu reactors across the country.
Yesterday, Hydro-Québec spokesman Gilles Lafontaine confirmed that fixing up the facility, 20 kilometres from Trois-Rivi¸res, would command a hefty price tag.
"The problem with the pressure tubes means we'll inevitably have to replace them one day, if we want to continue to produce," Lafontaine said.
"There's a premature wear and tear that's happening, which will require an investment of half a billion dollars."
Pressure tubes are a crucial component of the reactor core, housing the uranium bundles that fuel the Candu.
But the $500 million needed to replace the tubes, which are becoming brittle and could rupture within the next decade, is enough to raise the ire of environmental activists.
"They might say $500 million, but it always ends up being much more," said Sylvie Trudel, an executive-committee member of the group Mouvement Vert Mauricie. "Whenever they've had expenses, the cost has always multiplied. It could easily go to $700 million.
"For a long time, we've asked that the plant be closed. Now that another $500 million is needed, let's take advantage of the opportunity to shut it down."
In the early 1980s, Ontario Hydro shut down two reactors at its Pickering plant to replace the same type of pressure tubes. The repair job took two years and cost $700 million.
If Gentilly II doesn't get such a cash infusion, the reactor could face an early shutdown, by 2008 at the latest.
Built in 1980, it was originally slated to last until 2013. Money for the repair job hasn't yet been allocated, and Hydro-Québec is planning a fall study to determine whether the move is economically feasible. A decision is expected within the next year.
Nuclear-industry critics say boarding up the plant would hardly paralyze Quebec, given that Gentilly II produces just 3 per cent of the province's electricity.
"In Quebec especially, we don't need nuclear energy," Trudel said. "The nuclear choice just isn't profitable.
"When you look at the bottom line, when you do the calculations, it's never been profitable. It's always been heavily subsidized."
The news that Gentilly II needs a major makeover is more bad news for the nuclear industry, coming on the heels of a scathing Ontario Hydro report.
The report condemned the utility for its mismanagement of nuclear plants across the province. Seven reactors at plants in Pickering and Owen Sound have since been shut down for temporary overhauls.
Lafontaine admitted yesterday that because of Ontario Hydro's well-publicized woes, Hydro-Québec faces an uphill battle in marshaling public support for the repairs.
"We can't keep our heads in the sand," he said. "It's clear that the public will be preoccupied with this, and we have to take that into account.
"It's going to be difficult, and we can't pretend it will be easy."
Associated PressOver the protests of anti-nuclear activists and concerned neighbors, the Department of Energy is seeking for the first time to use a civilian power plant to make tritium for nuclear weapons.
If the plan goes through as expected next month, it would violate a longstanding tenet that civilian nuclear power plants are not to be used to make weapons.
But while opponents said the plan to make tritium -- a radioactive form of hydrogen -- violates nonproliferation treaties and makes the United States look foolish as it opposes other countries doing the same thing, energy officials said the project is simply a safe and necessary test.
The government's own reactors that could produce tritium are broken down, and buying tritium from other countries is not considered politically feasible. The government contemplated but ultimately rejected building a new reactor at a cost of at least $9 billion, The New York Times reported Monday.
"The point of the test is to provide confidence to the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), utilities and to the public that making tritium in a light-water reactor is technically straightforward and safe," Energy project director Stephen Sohinki told about 100 people Thursday at what may be the only public hearing on the plan.
The only remaining step is the approval of the NRC, which is expected.
The plans calls for the Energy Department to pay the Tennessee Valley Authority $7.5 million to do the test once at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in nearby Spring City.
The TVA plans to load four special lithium rods into its reactor, which will collect the naturally produced tritium.
Although the United States is reducing its weapons stockpile, the government contends a continuing supply of tritium is needed because the isotope loses its effectiveness quickly. Tritium decays at a rate of about 5.5 percent a year.
The United States has not produced tritium since 1988, and President Clinton has issued a directive to the Energy Department to find a new supply by 2005.
Speaker after speaker Thursday railed against the plan, asking why the United States needs more bomb components now that the Cold War is over. They also worried about radioactive releases into the Tennessee River and TVA's ability to secure Watts Bar, which cost $7 billion over 20 years and has been running for a little more than a year.
"NRC and DOE are here because TVA is unique among utilities in its lack of accountability to the people who pay its bills," said Ralph Hutchison, spokesman for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. "You couldn't do this at a public utility. People wouldn't approve it."
TVA is a federally funded government corporation, unlike utilities that have publicly traded stock.
Others said the plan violates the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which forbids using civilian plants to make "special nuclear materials."
"You conspired to break the law," Jeannine Honicker, a 63-year-old anti-nuclear activist, told Sohinki.
Sohinki countered that the act specifically focused its proliferation concerns on uranium and plutonium, which can be made into bombs, and not tritium. It has other uses, from runway lights to watch dials.
"But you are not making this for any of those other purposes. You are making this specifically for nuclear bombs," said Honicker.
"That's the only reason you are making that?"
"And therefore,' she said, "you are violating the Atomic Energy Act."
Over the applause of the crowd, Sohinki said: "Well, I disagree with that."
Despite the crowds' concerns, NRC project manager Bob Martin said during a break in the four-hour session: "The review is going rather well. We haven't seen any thing yet that says reverse the situation."
The plan calls for the TVA to load the rods into the Watts Bar reactor when it closes for fuel reloading in September.
The [London] Times
By INIGO GILMORE
JOHANNESBURG - Iran has tried to buy items needed for the production of nuclear weapons from South Africa.
A detailed shopping list, presented to the head of South Africa's Atomic Energy Corporation by Reza Amrollahi, Iran's Deputy Minister of Atomic Afairs, was rejected by stunned officials, according to a report to be published in a British defence magazine.
Dr Waldo Stumpf, head of the corporation, said he was handed a file after a meeting that took place early last year in Pelindaba near Pretoria. "It contained a comprehensive list of items needed for manufacturing nuclear weapons," he said. "There were some very advanced things asked for; blueprints, industrial, chemical and laboratory equipment, and other essentials required for the production of weapons of mass destruction."
Dr Stumpf told the Iranian minister that, in accordance with the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under no circumstances could he or members of his staff comply.
R.F. "Pik" Botha, then the Minister of Energy Affairs, has confirmed he attended the meeting, which was apparently organised by President Mandela's office, the September issue of Jane's International Defence Review says. The report mentions that South Africa, a de facto nuclear power, was a key destination on Iran's worldwide shopping trip for nuclear technology which also took its officials to Ukraine and Central Asian countries.
It says Tehran has made "considerable progress" in its quest towards developing nuclear weapons. Quoting South African Defence Force officials, it reveals that an undisclosed number of technicians made redundant by the scrapping of the South African nuclear programme have been hired by Iran.
South Africa has stopped manufacturing weapons-grade uranium, but still retains wide expertise in the field of nuclear technology. Even though the Iranians apparently left empty-handed, news of the meeting will raise concern over Iran's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
It has also cast a spotlight on Iran's manipulation of the close relationship it has developed with South Africa to the chagrin of the United States. South Africa buys two thirds of its oil from Iran. The United States last year expressed its displeasure over the red-carpet treatment that was afforded to a high-profile delegation of visiting Iranian government officials.
By Andrew Duffy
Ontario Hydro, forced to close seven nuclear reactors because of management and safety concerns, has announced it will burn more oil and coal to replace the forgone power.
It will also buy power during peak periods from U.S. generating stations, many of which spew pollutants into southern Ontario.
The fossil-fuel plants are a major source of greenhouse gases and soot, which react with sunlight to form ozone, a key element in the chemical soup known as smog.
Smog plagues most southern Ontario cities and is blamed for 1,800 premature deaths each year. It can leave asthma and emphysema sufferers gasping for breath.
"It's going to be bad. We can expect to see a lot more smog in urban areas than we've seen for many years,'' said Kevin Jardine, a climate change campaigner with Greenpeace.
To make up for lost nuclear capacity over the next three years, Ontario Hydro is increasing its production of electricity from oil and coal by 60 per cent.
Coal is among the world's dirtiest energy sources, producing emissions that contribute to acid rain, global warming and smog.
Mr. Jardine estimated the three aging generating stations -- Lambton, Nanticoke and Lennox -- will produce as much pollution as six million cars. Five million cars are now registered in Ontario; each generates about four tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
Hydro's carbon dioxide emissions, Mr. Jardine said, are expected to skyrocket to 45 million tonnes from the 1995 level of 22 million tonnes. Other environmentalists predict the utility's carbon dioxide emissions will rise to about 30 million tonnes.
Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas in the Earth's atmosphere. Greenhouse gases retain heat and are slowly warming the Earth's surface, a development that threatens to create increasingly violent weather patterns, droughts, floods and rising seas.
Hydro had committed itself to reducing its carbon dioxide emission levels to 1990 levels by the year 2000, but that voluntary goal is now impossible to meet.
Hydro spokesman Angelo Castellan said the utility has not yet determined how its carbon dioxide emission levels will be affected. But Ontario residents, he maintained, should not notice a major difference in air quality next year.
"There should be no appreciable environmental impacts as a result of this increased burn we're doing for three years,'' he said.
All three plants have state-of-the-art equipment to remove soot from their emissions. But the Lennox and Nanticoke plants do not have the scrubbers required to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions. Sulphur dioxide is a major contributor to acid rain.
Mr. Castellan said Ontario Hydro plans to use low-sulphur fuel and to introduce natural gas, a cleaner fuel. He said the emission levels will be much better than those witnessed in the 1980s.
"We were putting out significantly more pollution in the '80s before the Darlington nuclear station came on line,'' he said. Darlington's four nuclear reactors started in 1993.
Louise Comeau, a climate change expert with the Sierra Club of Canada, agrees that Ontario Hydro will release less pollution than it did in the 1980s. But that's not saying very much, she said, because in the 1980s Hydro's environmental record was terrible.
After the coal-burning plants increase their operations, nearby Ontario cities will be hard hit by the ensuing smog-creating emissions, she said.
"We're going to get it coming and going,'' she said. "We're going to get more pollutants from the increased domestic production and the more electricity we buy from the Ohio Valley, the more smog will blow our way from coal-burning plants in the U.S.''
Ontario Hydro announced Wednesday it was temporarily closing seven of the province's 19 operating reactors after a scathing report pointed to deep-seated problems in the utility's nuclear division.
It found the reactors were operating at a "minimally acceptable'' standard and blamed the problem on the closed, cult-like management structure of Hydro's nuclear unit. The corporate culture allowed workers to cut corners, but not to raise objections about plant operations, the report said.
Hydro is spending up to $8 billion over the next three years to bring the plants up to an acceptable performance standard and to buy replacement power.
Environmentalists said yesterday the government should use this opportunity to promote energy conservation and alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
"The Ontario government doesn't have to let Ontario Hydro go ahead with simply replacing one form of dangerous dirty power with another form of dangerous dirty power,'' Mr. Jardine said.
He wants the province to encourage private companies to use "co-generation,'' a process that produces heat and electricity at the same time, rather than separately.
Ken Ogilvie, of Pollution Probe, said, "The debate should not be coal versus nuclear. The debate should be clean energy versus dirty energy.''
"All of that discussion about firing up the coal generators and refurbishing the nuclear plants is exactly the wrong response to the issue,'' he said. "We should let the private sector invest in cleaner, newer technologies.''
By Ian MacLeod
Politics, geography and timing helped saved Hydro Quebec from the nuclear fallout now facing Ontario Hydro.
A generation ago, the two giant utilities and their political masters began making decisions that today have Ontario Hydro dependent for 54 per cent of the province's electrical power on its once promising, but now faltering, nuclear generating system.
"Once you're so deeply in to it as they are now, they're in a very difficult position," says Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility in Montreal.
Hydro-Quebec, meanwhile, is humming along almost entirely on water-generated power.
In the end, some industry analysts believe, Ontario will be forced to buy some of that Quebec water power while it carries out a multi-billion-dollar safety shutdown and overhaul on seven of its 20 nuclear reactors. And some believe Ontario Hydro has politically nuked itself in the process.
"The nuclear program at Ontario Hydro has turned out to have been a fatal mistake by the utility," says Tom Adams, executive-director of the power-policy watchdog Energy Probe.
"There's no question Hydro-Quebec is in a vastly advantageous position."
Hydro-Quebec, which certainly has its own troubles and controversies, developed into a nearly nuclear-free utility, in part because of the 1968 opening of an experimental reactor, called Gentilly-1, near Trois-Rivieres by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.
The reactor, which AECL wanted Hydro Quebec to buy, was a technical and economic disaster and only operated intermittently for 180 days, says Mr. Edwards.
Four years later, Quebec watched as Ontario Hydro's snazzy new Pickering CANDU nuclear plant (undertaken in 1964) went on line. Before long, Hydro-Quebec was planning as many as 30 of its own reactors along the St. Lawrence River. (It was also pushing ahead with hydro-generating projects and, in 1971, unveiled plans for the James Bay mega-project.)
A Gentilly-2, says Mr. Edwards, was envisioned by Hydro-Quebec near its predecessor on the promise that the federal government would pay half of the estimated $400-million construction cost.
When the Parti Quebecois came to power in 1976, it declared a moratorium on building any new reactors, with the exception of the already planned Gentilly-2 and Gentilly-3.
But when Gentilly-2 finally opened in 1983, the cost had quadrupled. Yet the federal government only paid for its half of the original estimate and left Quebec holding the rest of the bill, Mr. Edwards says. Gentilly-2, while hampered in recent years with its own safety problems, provides about three per cent of Hydro-Quebec's power.)
As well, the $400-million LaPrade Heavy Water Plant was built nearby to supply the heavy water used in CANDU reactors' cooling systems.
AECL, says Mr. Edwards, "convinced the Quebec government that there was going to be a tremendous future in nuclear (CANDU) reactors and that the only problems was going to be building these reactors fast enough to keep up with the demand."
But the big demand for CANDU's never materialized and LaPrade was soon mothballed. Gentilly-3 was never built. And by 1978, orders for nuclear power generating plants across North American dried up.
"Hydro-Quebec was stung three times," with Gentilly-1 and 2 and LaPrade, Mr. Edwards says.
But Hydro-Quebec probably benefited from getting involved with nuclear power in a slower and later fashion than did Ontario Hydro.
"In one respect, Hydro-Quebec was lucky in the sense that they came into the nuclear scene at a late enough date that the problems started becoming apparent."
Hydro-Quebec also had, and still does have, enormous water resources to exploit -- and finance -- notably the James Bay project and the renewed talk of a revised hydro-electric project along the Great Whale River, and negotiations with Newfoundland to develop the lower Churchill Falls hydro-electric project.
Ontario Hydro, meanwhile, says its 69 hydro-electric dams, including several along the Ottawa and Madawaska rivers, have wrung all the power it's going to get out of Ontario's waterways. Last year, that amounted to only a quarter of the utility's total output. (Fossil fuel generating plants supply another 13 per cent.)
"Every one of the major hydro-electrical potentials in the province has been tapped," says John Earl, an Ontario Hydro spokesman.
Concludes Mr. Adams of Energy Probe: "One of the implications of this big debacle in Ontario is that Hydro-Quebec stands to gain a major new export market, at least until Ontario can put something else in place. Traditionally, Ontario has bought very little from Hydro-Quebec, but we are going to need the juice."
By Michael Woloschuk
Ontario Hydro's dramatic decision to shut down seven atomic reactors signifies the end of the nuclear era in Canada, says one of the country's leading energy industry critics.
"It looks like the nuclear option is dead in Canada," said Tom Adams, the executive director of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based industry watchdog that is opposed to atomic power.
"This probably signals the early shut-down of reactors in New Brunswick and Quebec as well, and the beginning of a transition towards a non-nuclear Ontario."
Ontario Hydro's board of directors said they will close four units at the Pickering generating station near Toronto and three at Bruce near Owen Sound.
The closings come on the heels of a damning internal probe on the public utility's nuclear power system, which was described in the investigation's report as being among the worst in North America.
Energy Minister Norm Sterling, who received the report, said he accepted the closings because he was concerned about the ability of management and employees to operate the plants safely.
Ontario Hydro's president and chief executive officer, Allan Kupcis, said he would take full responsibility for the failings raised by the investigation, and resigned.
The utility's board of directors said the seven reactors were scheduled to remain shut for only one year while overhauls to the nuclear facilities are completed. But Mr. Adams said there was "virtually no chance" of that happening.
"The utility is trying to put a brave face on the closure by saying they may restart some of the seven units," he said. "Basically, Ontario Hydro's finances are in meltdown here."
Indeed, the utility's economic problems -- especially those relating to the company's nuclear facilities -- have long been a concern of government and financial analysts.
Ontario Hydro, carrying a debt of more than $33 billion, is one of the most heavily leveraged companies in the world. Earlier this year, the company was warned by senior management that its nuclear plants accounted for $25 billion of that debt.
While unloading the financially troubled utility remains a priority for the Conservative government, potential investors might be scared off by the possibility of a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit resulting from a nuclear accident.
By closing the nuclear plants, explained Mr. Adams, the Ontario government would have an easier time shopping Ontario Hydro around to potential buyers.
"The nuclear plants don't look very privatizable right now," he said. "You'd have to be an absolute moron to buy a Candu reactor."
Although financial experts did not share Mr. Adam's zeal in describing the unsalability of the utility's nuclear facilities, they agreed with the industry watchdog that Ontario Hydro would stand a better chance at privatization if its atomic plants were scrapped.
"Nuclear assets are difficult -- certainly that's where the problem lies right now," said Michael Rao, a senior analyst with the Dominion Bond Rating Service. "With all these extra costs coming in -- Ontario Hydro was supposed to be reducing its debt by $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year for the next four years. All that cash flow that they were supposed to be generating is now going to go toward the additional costs of overhauling these facilities."
And while Ontario Hydro may be experiencing management and debt problems with its nuclear facilities, that doesn't necessarily signal the death of atomic power, said a senior official with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the Crown corporation that built the Candu reactors at the seven troubled Ontario sites.
"If anything, we see the next century embracing nuclear technology to a greater extent than has been the case," said Gary Kugler, who is the AECL's vice president of commercial operations. "There will be relatively few environmental options for producing electricity in the next century, and nuclear will be one of them."
Mr. Kugler said the closings at the Pickering and Bruce facilities were due to management and personnel problems and should not reflect on the reliability of Candu reactors.
"Any time a utility that's as important as Ontario Hydro -- and is operating Candu reactors -- experiences performance problems, this is not good news for us," he said. "We understand, however, that they see this largely as an internal Hydro problem, a management and work-culture problem. As such, they're taking the necessary steps to recover. They do stress in the report that they find the Candu technology sound and robust.
"What Hydro will do will [be to] address the management and cultural problems. There will be relatively little needed in the way of major repairs. Those reactors have operated for a number of years and most components do wear with time. There has been neglect and Hydro admits to that -- that's the whole point of the report. It's simply a question of doing proper maintenance -- and ideally preventative maintenance -- so these equipment problems don't get out of hand."
If Mr. Adams of Energy Probe had his way, the nuclear plants will never be restarted again.
And he applauded the timing of the shutdowns because [it] forces the province to consider future electricity sources as well as the privatization of the industry.
Energy Probe, he said, is pushing for a much more decentralized, consumer-driven electricity industry wherein customers choose the company with whom they want to deal -- and where most of Ontario Hydro's assets get sold off.
But the bottom line, he added, is that electrical generation become nuclear free.
"The risk to Ontarians has been meaningfully reduced by closing the crotchetiest, oldest, creakiest reactors," he said. "We're very pleased that the utility came to its senses about its nuclear problems before they had a big accident with one of these reactors. That's the good news -- they could have waited until after and that would have been a terrible tragedy. As it is, the only damage here is financial."