Canadian Consulting Engineer

Nuclear expert defends the technology

June 13, 2003
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

After Canadian Consulting Engineer published an editorial Comment entitled "Nuclear's No Answer" in the March-April...

After Canadian Consulting Engineer published an editorial Comment entitled “Nuclear’s No Answer” in the March-April 2003 issue (p. 4) — see Archives on our Home Page www.canadianconsultingengineer — an engineer who has a long career in the nuclear industry responded, as below:

E-mail from Morgan Brown, P.Eng. of Deep River, Ontario to the Editor, Canadian Consulting Engineer:

“During my undergraduate mechanical engineering studies, I discovered my main interest lay in energy – both production and consumption. I was introduced to nuclear science and technology, particularly for electricity production, and began to look harder at it. It became apparent to me, despite Three Mile Island, Pickering-2 and Chornobyl, that nuclear science and technology had many merits. The global footprint left by nuclear power was far smaller than for many other power sources, for the same net output. Therefore I actively pursued an education and career in nuclear engineering.
I spent a summer working at a wonderfully built and maintained Russian-designed power reactor in Finland, and later obtained employment with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. I have not regretted this choice, and remain convinced that nuclear science and technology have a great deal to offer – despite its political “incorrectness,” unfashionableness, and inability to show a profit in the first quarter.
I was a little surprised to see your editorial in the March/April 2003 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer. You evidently dislike nuclear power.
Please allow me the time to address your comments.
First of all, you disliked the ads and publicity of the Canadian Nuclear Association, and the linkage between happy children and nuclear energy. Yes, the CNA is hard at work promoting nuclear science and technology. Why shouldn’t they? After all, the anti-nuclear activists (professional and amateur) have been doing their very best to run nuclear down with their well-executed campaigns. Nuclear energy doesn’t use our atmosphere or water as a running sewer, as do fossil-fired generation (gas, coal, oil, peat). Since 1962 (and mainly in the last 20 years), Canadian nuclear power reactors have delivered as much electricity to Canadian electrical grids as Canada presently consumes in over three years. And Canadian reactors built overseas have added about 20% more electricity to their local grids. A mighty fine record, not without a fair share of problems along the way.
To address your issue of waste, fuel bundles are mildly radioactive when placed in a reactor, and highly radioactive when they are removed. But the very nature of radioactivity is to give off energy and particles as the material seeks a lower and stable energy level. Thus in the very process of being radioactive, the used reactor fuel becomes continuously less radioactive and less of a problem. That is quite unlike mercury, which maintains the same toxicity forever. In five centuries, unprotected humans could handle fuel bundles for several hours (even days) with no effect.
Certainly, five centuries is a long time, but it is a lot less than the “10,000” years you mention. The 10 millennia is the time by which the spent fuel will have no more potential for harm than uranium ore. The scientists and engineers behind the world’s nuclear waste management programs are aiming to keep spent nuclear fuel away (i.e. not ingested or inhaled) from humans for that length of time as a conservatively safe target. And the systems put in place assume that the fuel bundles will corrode and groundwater will transport radionuclides to the biosphere, despite the best efforts of the engineered repository (not a dump!). Nuclear is the only energy source that takes its waste seriously, and is doing its best to avoid putting a burden on future generations who did not benefit from the energy produced.
Nuclear is not cheap, but there is no such thing as cheap energy. Often one hears the mid-1950s “too-cheap-to-meter” comment of Lewis Strauss (administrator of the US Atomic Energy Commission), as if it was a promise of the nuclear industry. Nonsense. Nuclear energy was not expected to be cheap but rather competitive with coal and other energy sources. As an example, in the Joule Memorial Lecture of 1951 Sir John Cockcroft, after explaining that the gas-cooled graphite reactor technology was manageable, said: “We do not expect to produce a cheaper source of power than that derived from coal – it is likely, in fact, to be somewhat more expensive. What we are aiming at is to increase the total power available.”
Yes, nuclear power plants are expensive to build, especially in periods of high interest rates as for Darlington (I was earning over 18% interest on a GIC I had in that period). Note that the latest four CANDU reactors completed (three in Korea, one in China) have been completed on time (or ahead) and on budget. And the second one being constructed in China is ahead of schedule and on budget. And I sure wouldn’t want to inflict more smog on China (or anywhere else, including Toronto) by saying no to nuclear and yes to fossil fuel (the only other realistic option for large amounts of reliable electrical generation).
The Pickering A restart is undoubtedly expensive, thanks to an extensive refit and upgrade with a much-widened scope. The difficulties were compounded by ensuring the station meets standards that would be required if the station was built new today. That includes a huge amount of qualification to today’s standards – finding out whether each and every component of a large number of systems meets the latest QA standards. As anyone involved in reverse engineering can imagine, this takes a lot of time and effort. Occasionally it might mean that perfectly good systems are replaced because they cannot be qualified to today’s standards. The outcome of the Pickering refurbishment will not necessarily be a much safer station (although there are safety improvements) because Pickering was a robust and safe design to begin with. But Pickering will be a station that can show and prove its safety to a higher degree. The Bruce refurbishment is considerably cheaper than Pickering’s, with the restoration of two reactors this year.
Bruce Power has shown very good progress for an expenditure of $400 million. This may in part be due to it being a privatized company, with employee bonuses and 5.2% union ownership. But Bruce Power’s refurbishment is not to the same degree as Pickering’s, and the Bruce A reactors will require re-tubing in a few years (Pickering A reactors were re-tubed in the 1980s).
Is there a cheaper option than nuclear? Yes and no. Coal and natural gas stations are cheaper to build, but the operating costs are much higher (notably the fuel prices). We’ve seen increasing natural gas prices for several years, and increased consumption by utilities will only drive prices higher at a faster rate. Coal is getting more expensive to burn, as additional scrubbing and smog-reducing systems are required. And both coal and gas produce CO2, claimed to be a greenhouse gas (I’m not a climatologist, nor have I studied global climate change sufficiently to express an educated opinion).
What about wind and solar? The two big problems with both are the diffusiveness of the energy, and the randomness of supply. I particularly like wind power, but unfortunately the capacity factors of wind power plants are typically under 30%. Wind has a real place in our grid system, but we would need over one thousand 1 MWe wind turbines and the attendant energy storage capability, just to equal the output of one Pickering reactor.
Nuclear plants operate typically in the 80 to 90% capacity factor range.
During the summer of 2002 Ontario’s nuclear plants were continually raked over the coals (so to speak) because electricity was in short supply and one reactor was out of commission (for maintenance) longer than anticipated. Yet Ontario’s 12 operating reactors had a capacity factor in the high 80s (and that includes those shut for maintenance) during those months, w
hile all the other sources (coal, gas, oil, hydro) were only able to operate at about 50% capacity). On average, Ontario’s reactors operated with a capacity factor over 80% in 2002.
Your final point regarded nuclear safety. Every single human activity has some form of risk, energy production not withstanding. Have you seen the photos of wind turbine failures? They’re pretty spectacular. Canada – especially AECL – does a great deal of work internationally,
ensuring its reactors meet modern safety standards and requirements.
Note, also, that CANDUs built in other countries represent a huge investment for the countries involved, and they cannot afford to run the stations poorly. These reactors help the nations (e.g. Romania, China and South Korea) avoid huge costs in importing coal or oil, the alternative energy sources.
Also, as seen in India and Pakistan (both cut off from direct Canadian nuclear aid due to their weapons programs in the 1970s), these nations have a great deal of expertise and capability in themselves. India, in particular, has made huge developments in reactor design, significantly improving the early CANDU design sold to them for the Rajastan 1 & 2 reactors. While Canada does not provide developmental nuclear expertise to India and Pakistan, we do discuss safety matters. It’s been said by some associates that we could learn a great deal from the Indians, too.
Finally, please don’t confuse nuclear weaponry and power production. Yes, they are linked by a common heritage and some common technology. But insisting on a military-civil link in nuclear technology is like insisting that the petrochemical industry is responsible for the landmine problem around the world. Or condemning the modern jet engine because it was developed during WWII. Yes, there must be safeguards and monitoring programs in place. But power reactors are more difficult for producing (and
hiding) nuclear weaponry than research reactors or uranium enrichment routes. And, quite frankly, nuclear weapon production is much more detectable and traceable than many other insidious weapon technologies.
I hope that I have addressed some of your concerns and points in a lucid fashion.
Morgan Brown, P.Eng.
Deep River, Ontario

Note: The opinions expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect anyone else’s.


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