Nuclear management in Ontario: the central lesson

Knowledge transfer is critical, even in small systems
A couple weeks ago my brother and I opened the family cottage for the season. That involves turning on the water, which at our Muskoka cottage is not winterized. Turning on the water involves closing conduit valves to isolate the pump and holding tanks, then priming the pump, pumping water into the pressurized holding tank and hot water heater, then systematically and sequentially opening conduit valves and closing drain valves. In the fall, to prevent freeze damage through the system, we reverse the procedure: we drain all the pipes and equipment. The system is started up and shut down usually only once a year. Early on we realized that because each of us goes through these procedures so infrequently, everyone has a tendency to forget to open this valve or close that one. To counter this, I labelled the valves then wrote up a list of procedures for start-up and shut-down. Hopefully, anybody can read and follow these procedures.

A few days ago, I tried to give some perspective to a newspaper article about the performance of the Pickering nuclear station. The newspaper article painted a grim picture, which I tried to explain by pointing up the decision, by utility chairman Maurice Strong in the early 1990s, to reverse direction on nuclear policy—i.e., to stop the nuclearization of Ontario’s electricity system and re-fossilize it. In the space of about ten short years during the 1970s, Ontario had become the most nuclearized jurisdiction in North America. As a jurisdiction we became one of North America’s economic powerhouses; our biggest industry, car manufacturing, relied then and relies today on cheap, reliable power.

During those ten years, Ontario became the proving ground for a unique reactor technology based on natural, unenriched, uranium fuel and heavy water moderator. This technology, CANDU, became, within ten short years, the biggest energy provider in the province, outperforming all other generation types combined. Suddenly, with this success under its belt, Canada was a force to be reckoned with in the international civilian nuclear arena. We began competing with some pretty formidable adversaries, all of whom were pushing enriched uranium, light water moderated/cooled machines. All had the backing, through various diplomatic and commercial mechanisms, of the United States government, by far the mightiest of the two superpowers.

The international sales effort was already underway when Strong took over as chair of Ontario Hydro. More importantly, so was the next wave of nuclear construction in Ontario. The Darlington project was nearing completion, and there were plans to build another station at the site. As a political appointee, Strong held his job at the pleasure of a political party, the NDP, that was then and is today anti-nuclear.

The fledgling NDP government was under severe criticism for also being anti-business. So, under the guise of cutting costs in government, Strong summarily reversed the nuclear policy that had transformed Ontario Hydro, the province of Ontario, and Canada. He cancelled the second Darlington station and set about getting rid of a large part of the nuclear workforce. Jeremy Whitlock of AECL has, as usual, provided an outstanding assessment of the Strong years, which he calls “The Lost Years.” It should be required reading.

As Whitlock points out, Ontario Hydro’s electricity demand forecast, on which the case for the second Darlington station was based, proved about exactly right. And as I have pointed out, Strong’s cancellation of Darlington B meant that that demand was met not by clean, cheap nuclear power but by fossil power.

Strong’s ideologically motivated decimation of the nuclear workforce ensured that Ontario Hydro would have great difficulty in refurbishing the older CANDUs at Pickering A and Bruce A. This is why seven of those CANDUs were taken out of service by 1997.

I mentioned a few days ago that this ensured that Ontario Hydro and its successor organization Ontario Power Generation (OPG) would face an institutional memory deficit when it came to the inevitable job of refurbishing the laid up CANDUs.

Archie Robertson, a former AECL man, says this:

[the institutional memory deficit] would not have been so serious if the operations had been less dependent on individuals and more on well-organized operating procedures, as required by good management practice. [Ontario Hydro’s] original contributions to the failings were to allow an unacceptable backlog of maintenance under cost-cutting pressures from above; inadequate documentation of the as-built state of its plants, as opposed to the original designs; and not to have [had] an adequate succession plan in place when it was needed. —source: “CANDU Costs: Discussion and Conclusion

Note the emphasis on well-organized operating procedures, backed up by good documentation. Without well-documented water startup procedures at our cottage, a person unfamiliar with our water system would have to study the whole setup before attempting to start the water at the beginning of the season. That would take time, and would inevitably involve making some mistakes, perhaps serious ones. But with good written procedures and well-labeled pipes and valves, pretty much anyone could do it in five minutes.

Others close to the events in question have said that the work load in the late Darlington construction years was tremendous. Canada was pushing hard to exploit its domestic CANDU successes in international markets. Many of the experts pushed out by Strong went to work on the CANDU projects in China, Korea, and Rumania. In hindsight, Strong should have ensured a smooth transition, by mining the experts for standard operating procedure information rather than telling them their technology was a thing of the past. He could then have had the experts impart their wisdom to their younger successors. That is good succession planning.

That is probably happening now. So far since Pickering 4 came back into service in 2003, the following units were restarted:

  1. Bruce unit 4; returned to service in December 2003.
  2. Bruce 3; returned to service in January 2004.
  3. Bruce units 1 and 2 began in 2005; unit 2 made its first steam on April 27 of this year.
  4. Pickering unit 1; returned to service in November 2005.
  5. NB Power’s Point Lepreau reactor (CANDU 6 model); returned to service in 2011.
  6. South Korea’s Wolsong unit 1 (also CANDU 6); also returned to service in 2011.

Ontario will soon begin yet another refurbishment, the Darlington Retube and Feeder Replacement (RFR) Project.

Knowledge transfer is even more important in large systems
I have no doubt that lessons have been learned from not just Pickering 4, but also from the subsequent six projects mentioned above and that the refurbishment teams will do the job efficiently and within budget. The crucial thing is for upcoming retirees—and there are a lot of them—to pass on the enormous tacit knowledge they possess to younger members of the workforce. What is the best way to capture this knowledge and transfer it to the young successors? There are a number of techniques to achieve this, and documentation, particularly of SOPs, is among the most important.

I have no doubt that if you were to review the management methods that have been used in the above-mentioned six refurbishment projects, you would find that this is exactly what has happened.

And that would mean the Canadian industry, while not devoid of challenges, is in good shape. The project teams are honed and ready for another project, which should be the Pickering B life extension.

But Darlington B awaits. The current Ontario government is on record as saying we need new nuclear reactors at Darlington.

We should begin Darlington B now. We will need the power, and the workforce is ready.

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