Should the people of Canada care if Ontario buys Canadian nuclear reactors?

Canada has put a lot of time, effort, and money into the nuclear sector. This time, effort, and money pays off every day, in the form of electricity, which is the lifeblood of the economy. Without electricity, we could not run our cities. It also pays off in the form of life-saving isotopes like molybdenum-99, which helps doctors diagnose illness, and cobalt-60, which fights cancer and makes blood safe for transfusion to infants who need it.

Canada’s nuclear investment goes back to the Manhattan Project of the Second World War. Of course, at that time we spared no expense: Canada was part of a military alliance in a fight to the death against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and the members of that alliance were in a race against those countries to build the first atomic bomb.

But after the war, Canada decided to forgo further military nuclear development and pursue only peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Since the linchpin of any weapons program is the ability to separate isotopes of uranium or plutonium, Canada chose the natural (unenriched, i.e., isotopically non-separated) uranium and heavy water route to nuclear energy—this does not require separating uranium or plutonium isotopes. But how would this fundamental technological choice shake out in an actual reactor design? Designers early on considered putting zirconium-clad uranium oxide fuel into a vat of heavy water, and encasing the whole assembly inside a thick forged-steel pressure vessel. This would allow the coolant to reach temperatures around 300 degrees Celsius, high enough to make steam to drive a big turbine generator.

The problem with that was, Canada did not then and does not today have industrial facilities capable of making forged steel components that size. How wise would it be to base a reactor design on critical components that only other countries were able to provide? One of these countries was of course the U.S., and the American civilian nuclear industry was also gearing up to take on the world. The Canadian designers thought it unwise to rely on our biggest competitor for important components. Accordingly, they decided to put the fuel into numerous individual pressure tubes, configured horizontally. This allowed for domestic manufacture of all the critical reactor components. It also allowed for continual refueling while at power, a major consideration for monopoly utilities with legal obligations to provide non-stop electricity to their customers.

By 1957, all these decisions had been made. The CANDU (Canadian Deuterium-Uranium) reactor was born. Within seven years, a reactor incorporating all the above-mentioned strategic design decisions was putting power into the Ontario grid. Five years later, a commercial prototype was operating at Douglas Point, the site of today’s Bruce nuclear generating station. And a station incorporating four 500-megawatt units was under construction at the Pickering site east of Toronto. Pickering began operation in 1971 and by 1973, with all four units running at full power, was producing more electricity than any other nuclear station in the world.

Within ten years of that, Ontario Hydro—the provincial utility that, in partnership with the federally owned Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), developed the CANDU and participated in all the major strategic design decisions—transformed from a hydro-coal utility to a predominantly nuclear one. Today, after a number of restructurings in the provincial power industry and the privatization of AECL’s CANDU division, Ontario’s power system remains primarily nuclear powered. CANDU reactors provide 100 percent of Ontario’s nuclear power. As I write this (at 1216 on Thursday, June 28, 2012—ninety-eight years to the day after the Austrian Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, thereby setting in motion the events that led to the Manhattan Project some twenty-eight years later), Ontario’s CANDUs are cranking out 10,536 MW, more power than all the other sources combined.

Now, Ontario has been endlessly waffling on what kind of new reactors to build at the Darlington site; I have covered that issue on this blog. Essentially, the question is whether to stick with CANDU, a proven technology, or go with a light water American or French design, which are also proven.

To repeat: the decision is whether to choose a proven Canadian design, a proven French one, or a proven American one. Since all three are proven, it is not clear why we opted to ever make the choice in the first place. What compelling reason is there to go with a foreign design? Maybe some time in the future when I know more about this I will write about it. But in the mean time, could someone explain why, after a half-century of unparalleled technological and economic success, it is a good idea to abandon the CANDU, which Canadian taxpayers generously and faithfully supported since its inception? Taxpayers have the right to expect some payoff from their hard-earned money. The Canadian nuclear sector has made good on the taxpayers’ expectation. Taxpayers are rewarded, each and every day, with enormous amounts of cheap, clean electricity and cheap life-saving isotopes.

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11 years ago

Obviously because the product that the current owner is attempting to sell at ripoff prices, is an ancient design that they have no intention whatsoever of spending any R&D money on.

Better we move on into the 21st century with a modern Gen III+ product that can be built dirt cheap in as little as 2.5 years using factory module production, whose owner is committed to significant expenditures in R&D.

The current owner owes its position purely through political influence and position on the current governing party’s board of directors. It is has immense and particularly odious legal problems. It is unlikely to get any support whatsoever from the next government.

These issues are well known making the Candu – already inferior to Indian’s R&D supported PHWR – unsaleable worldwide.

I should think the Darlington choice is obvious.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  seth

well, first let’s remember that “ancient” in the nuclear realm means developed a couple decades ago. By the standards of auto manufacturing maybe that’s ancient. By nuclear standards it’s not.

And I don’t know any reactor manufacturer that is selling reactors dirt cheap. Certainly there’s none selling them as factory built modules. If you want a PWR or BWR you still have to get in line at Japan Steel Works for your heavy forging. In fact, CANDU is better suited for factory-built components than any other design with the exception of the NuScale and B&W SMRs (neither of which have hit the market yet). I bet it’s all in the same ballpark, on a per kW capacity basis.

As for political influence and position, we could say exactly the same about Areva and Westinghouse. R&D — same thing. Canada, with the intent to “privatize” Chalk River, is aiming to do the same thing the U.S. government did with its research labs.

11 years ago

Actually Westinghouse is already using factory module production in China is and is building a plant in Louisiana.

The cost of the regulatory crippled first of a kind VC Summer AP-1000 units are $4B/Gw and in China half that – same as the Candu 6 build at Quinshan. With Canada’s more reasonable regulator Canadian costs would be likely somewhere in the middle. Note the NRC just put Vogtle 6 months behind schedule because of upgraded rebar specs normal in industrial production.

Those are first of kind costs, which both Westinghouse and AECL predicted to drop to $1B/Gw when annual production gets in the 3 digit figures.

Unfortunately AECL’s factory production and modern reactor ideas died when our fringe extreme right wing government decided it would rather spent billions of taxpayers dollars with SNC Lavalin on wacky carbon capture ideas than a few hundred million on a nuclear future for Canada.

SNC is quoting $5B/Gw for their obsolete product while the Indians with their more modern PHWR design are claiming $2B/Gw. Factory production requires a reasonable chance at growing market.There is no possibility that SNC will get any orders outside of Ontario and there only because of politics.

Unless costs drop considerably, it would be far smarter for OPG to forget about refurbing its old Candu’s, and make a deal with Westinghouse on industrial offsets.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  seth

Seth, any differences in the costs of the Vogtle/Sumner AP1000s and an EC6 in Ontario have to be viewed through the lens of government support for those sales. The Vogtle proponent received a loan guarantee from the U.S. government. No such support is formally on the table in Canada. Notice that the proponents of the Calvert Cliffs new build (which referenced Areva’s EPR) did not receive U.S. gov’t support even though they were nominally eligible — the U.S. gov’t (OMB) nickel-and-dimed them so relentlessly that they just gave up. Was that because their application was based on a non-U.S. reactor design? If they had referenced the AP1000 or the ESBWR, would things have worked out differently?

In every “home” market, every sale has a domestic industry angle. It’s that way in the U.S., and it’s that way in France (name one power reactor built recently in France that wasn’t an Areva/Framatome design). Canada is no different.

Jerry Cuttler
11 years ago

This is a ridiculous discussion. The CANDUs in Ontario are performing remarkably well, especially in this very hot weather. The eight reactors at Bruce site are being refurbished to operate for another 30 years. OPG has decided to shutdown the old reactors at Pickering NGS and build new CANDU 6 reactors at Darlington NGS. Our problem is not LWRs or CANDU, it is social acceptance of nuclear energy vs windmills and gas-fired generation. We have to focus on eliminating the psychosis of fear of (low-level) nuclear radiation. We need to start looking at the radiobiology and the data, and question the basis for the fear.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Cuttler

Jerry, you say “Our problem is not LWRs or CANDU, it is social acceptance of nuclear energy vs windmills and gas-fired generation.” I would add that it is social acceptance within a certain voting region, which is located just west of the Pickering plant, and which runs for roughly the next 90 km along Lake Ontario i.e. 416 Toronto.

An Interested Observer
11 years ago

There may not be a single compelling reason to choose a non-CANDU design for the next generation of nuclear power plants that will supply Ontario’s electrical energy needs for at least the next 60, possibly 100 years. There are however good and acceptable reasons to carefully study all alternative designs to assure that the final choice is the best fit to the Province’s needs, rather than to conclude that a CANDU based design is the logical choice based on historical and patriotic grounds. Some of those reasons are linked to:
• Grid Capacity: Now that the ACR 1000 project has been mothballed, the only CANDU type reactor on the market seems to be the enhanced 600 MW design, with a nominal output of 700 MW. The Ontario grid of today can absorb larger units that this; the Ontario of the future will certainly need the generating capacity provided by the larger units offered by light water (LWR) designs. Installing smaller generating units today could just mean that they will more rapidly become uncompetitive in tomorrow’s expanded and growing electricity marketplace.
• Simplicity: CANDU designs require more systems and equipment than their competitors. A few examples of increased complexity, and extra equipment include:
o the on-power fuel handling equipment alone adds a large body of complicated machinery demanding a separate, specially trained crew of operators, maintainers and engineers.
o There are special heavy water recovery, clean-up, upgrading and storage systems.
o Regulatory fiat requires two separate, independent, diverse and fully capable shutdown systems. Acceptable diversity means pressure transducers in one system are of different design and brand than those of the other system, leading to added maintenance and operating burdens.

I’m not trying to deprecate CANDU’s successes; I simply wish to draw attention to the attractiveness of design simplicity. It pays dividends, and should be factored into Ontario’s choice of nuclear plant that meets the needs of the next 3, 4, or 5 generations. Before moving on, I will point out that the operating and maintenance demands inherent in a sophisticated design (ergo CANDU) has at times surpassed the very best efforts well-managed, well-organized and modern utilities have been able to bring forth. There have been many, far too many, years of much lower than desirable capacity factors at CANDU nuclear power plants. Some of these years must surely be attributable to an inability to keep up with the maintenance and operating burdens.

To summarize – there is ample evidence that design simplicity and its beneficial impact on operating and maintenance burdens is a very desirable feature and should easily trump nationalistic “it’s been home-grown” sentiments in any engineering/economic/technical assessment related to a Province’s future electrical supply options.
• Global vs. Local Community: Whenever the CNSC issues a licence for Site Preparation, or for Construction or for Operation, there will be caveats attached concerning ‘on-going analysis and investigation’ required to resolve unanswered issues. It has always been so, and regardless of the technology chosen, history will repeat itself in this regard. The only dimensions that will be different will pertain to the nature, scope and depth of the unanswered issues.

The choice facing Ontario and OPG then boils down to: Do we wish to resource the ongoing effort to resolve unanswered licensing issues for a CANDU on our own, or do we wish to join a huge international community of designers, architect/engineers, owners and operators who jointly seek answers to unresolved issues for an LWR technology? The response will come quickly to those Ontarions who use the thickness of their pocketbooks as one of the inputs to decisions on such matters.

The accomplishments of the CANDU design – Point Lepreau, Gentilly, Embalse, Wolsong, Cernavoda and Quinshan, and the domestic fleet of Pickering A and B, Bruce A and B and Darlington are not inconsiderable. It’s all good stuff and stuff to be proud of!
Before leaping into the future however, a careful study must be made of not just the record of these plants (some of which is spotty) but also of the potential merits of other designs. Choosing a technology as important as the source of electrical generation for Canada’s most populous province requires nothing less than our best, not just a simple knee-jerk in the direction of the country in which the design originated.

Frankly, I’m surprised that a resident of Ontario would suggest anything less than a full examination of all important factors related to the choice of nuclear plant technology for the Ontario new builds. CANDU may well win in the end, but hopefully only on legitimate technical and economic arguments.

11 years ago

I have heard that, amongst nuclear power plants, Canada’s CANDU and India’s PHWRs are the most “eco-friendly” in that for a given number of Gigawatt-years of electricity generation, these designs require the least amount of Uranium to be mined, particularly when reprocessing and reuse of [RG]Pu and U-238 from spent fuel is adopted as India proposes to do. Is this correct?

A comment made above that cites the on-load refueling system as a drawback in a CANDU / PHWR system. The fact that many reactors in Canada, India and other countries where CANDUs are in operation, have consistently registered uninterrupted operations for more that a year at a stretch may be an indicator that the drawback cited is one that can be and has been largely overcome. Yes, in the early days of CANDU / PHWR there might have been many instances of low capacity factors obtained from the plants. But with learning, this has improved to a large extent.

My view is that Canadians must opt for Candian plants just as Indians must support indigenous designs. Unfortunately in both cases things with a “foreign” tag seem to be more attractive for policy makers. I feel, on this issue, grass is definitely not greener on the other side!

An Interested Observer
11 years ago
Reply to  Udhishtir

@Udhishtir: You are correct, and I agree with you that fuel handling equipment in CANDU plants operates with respectably high reliabilities. I was attempting to point out that CANDU plants have comparatively higher operating and maintenance burdens than other designs due to the CANDU’s need to incorporate more systems and equipment to do the same amount of generation. Fuel handling equipment, heavy water treatment equipment, two shutdown systems were just examples to illustrate the point. The operation and maintenance can be very well done – it just takes more resources, effort and organization to do it. And sometimes, the resources, effort and organization required may surpass a utility’s abilities to achieving very high capacity factors. When choosing the next generation of Ontario NPP’s keep all this in mind. That’s all.

As for any thoughts of “we must use domestic”, about 70% of the equipment in any nuclear power plant design – PWR, BWR, CANDU – is common to all designs. There is lots of scope there to keep the grass well watered and green within the country’s borders.

11 years ago

@An Interested Observer:
Yes; it would be impractical to strive for 100% localization. However, my own preference would be for closer to 90% indigenization rather than the 70% suggested by you. But I agree, these are just numbers, not all that much difference may exist between 70% and 90%. In the final analysis, it is essential to ensure that a country does not have to depend on imports for any of the critical items of the power plant such as fuel and specialized parts and their spares etc. I think as far as India is concerned, as of now, PHWRs, and NOT LWRs offer the best scope for increased local content. For quite some time to come, if at all, big forgings required by modern LWRs would be out of India’s reach.

I do wish some day Canada and India would join hands and offer tempting economics for the EC6 (or any other CANDU / PHWR) model that is being proposed to be built in the UK. This may prove to be a win-win situation for Canada, India and the UK.

An Interested Observer
11 years ago
Reply to  Udhishtir

Your comments are spot on! Couldn’t agree more.