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Wednesday, May 22, 2024
CNWC Nuclear News

The Ontario LWR debate that never was, and an artist’s rendition of what it could be

The ’topes that brought the MAPLE-sticky company down

In 2008, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) began a public competitive bidding process to select a new nuclear reactor design to build at the Darlington site. OPG wanted at least 2,000 MW of capacity, in the form of at least 2 new reactors. It received proposals from 3 vendors: Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), which held intellectual property rights to CANDU; Areva, the French PWR giant; and Westinghouse, the American PWR giant.

That was the first time AECL had had to deal with competition in its home market. The reason was the company had experienced a very public and very steep decline in its reputation in Canada. That decline was brought on by a series of incidents related more to its medical isotope business than to power reactors. In 2007, an activist president at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission inflated downtime at a water circulation pump at AECL’s isotope production reactor at Chalk River into a major safety issue and refused to allow the company to restart the reactor after a maintenance outage. This interrupted isotope production, which halted thousands of routine diagnostic procedures in North American hospitals.

CANDU’s inventor (or co-inventor), and Canada’s most brilliant innovator

The CNSC president had misunderstood her mandate, and had to be overruled by the Canadian Parliament in a special session in early December. But AECL had also failed to upgrade the pump’s backup power supply as the CNSC had told it to do a year earlier. The federal government, which owned AECL, was not happy that the company had put itself into this position.

Schumer on shrooms? How “target shaming” almost wrecked a Canadian industry

AECL had since late in the last century wanted to move isotope production from the Chalk River machine, which was a multi-purpose research reactor, to dedicated isotope production reactors, and had begun a project in the 1990s to design them. High politics in the U.S. derailed this plan. The new reactors, called MAPLE, were designed to use high enriched uranium (HEU) targets. However, the U.S. Congress in 1992 had passed an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act that was intended to make procuring HEU much more difficult, and the Clinton Administration had run with that.

The 1992 amendment, named after its sponsor Chuck Schumer (yes, that Chuck Schumer; he was a congressman in 1992), was designed to pressure civilian HEU users to make do with low-enriched (less than 20 percent U-235) material.

Schumer’s amendment had come as a result of the world’s shock at discovering, the year before, that Saddam Hussein had a massive secret uranium enrichment program in progress at the time his army was routed and driven from Kuwait. UN weapons inspectors, scouring post-Desert Storm Iraq for chemical and biological weapons, almost literally stumbled across the huge electromagnetic isotope separators. The machines were Manhattan Project-era Calutrons, declassified and in the public domain, apparently on the assumption that nobody would ever separate uranium with such an electricity-intensive process.

Schumer’s line of reasoning was, if Saddam could develop uranium enrichment equipment, then anybody could. Including Canada. Therefore Canada must be prevented from receiving American HEU.

You could be forgiven for wondering if that logic came from Alice in Wonderland or some hallucinogenic experience. But such is U.S. antiproliferation policy.

Technologically, the Schumer Amendment’s requirement that HEU users move to LEU proved much easier said than done. It was so difficult in fact that President Bush in his first term signed an amendment that exempted some countries, including Canada, from the Schumer amendment restrictions.

But the amendment to the Schumer amendment was still intended to be only temporary; AECL still had to figure out how to make the MAPLE design, which to repeat had originally envisioned HEU targets, work with LEU targets.

What followed was an embarrassing debacle. The MAPLE simply did not work in practice as the design predicted. Nobody, including international reactor physics experts called in to help diagnose the issue, could figure out why. AECL cancelled the project in 2008, around the time OPG was deciding to open the Darlington competition.

Did the American pressure to phase out HEU cause the MAPLE failure? Almost certainly it was the dominant background factor leading to it. And it underscored the fundamental imbalance in Canada’s nuclear relationship with the U.S., an imbalance that CANDU, some 4 decades before, had brilliantly rendered irrelevant in the field of power reactors.

The star striker scores an own goal: did it cost the game itself?

But AECL had also scored a serious own-goal, with the decision to develop the “Advanced CANDU Reactor” (ACR), which would run on slightly enriched fuel and be cooled with light, not heavy, water. The entire raison d’etre for CANDU had been complete Canadian sovereignty over technology and fuel. The company’s new commitment to ACR compelled then-Prime Minister Harper to go to bat for the Canadian industry in a futile bid to convince president Bush to not veto a Canadian request at the Nuclear Suppliers Group to acquire enrichment capability—that was the only way to maintain fuel sovereignty.

Bush’s refusal left Canada as dependent as ever on a foreign supplier that could change the rules of the game at any time. So when the MAPLE design proved intractable with LEU, leaving AECL little option but to pull the plug on the entire project, and AECL nonetheless based its offering to Ontario on the enriched-fueled ACR-1000—and OPG selected the ACR—the PM and those around him must have wondered about the competence of whomever was driving the bus not just at the company but in the Canadian nuclear industry.

From that point on, Canada’s days as the leading molybdenum-99 supplier in the western hemisphere were numbered. (President Obama doubled down on the HEU phaseout, and the last of it was delivered to Chalk River in 2016.)

Also from that point on, an era had ended in Ontario electricity, though few realized it at the time. AECL had developed the CANDU in partnership with Ontario Hydro, one of the biggest and most influential electric utilities in the world. Hydro’s dissolution into 5 separate companies in the late 1990s destroyed the partnership and obscured the overarching fuel-sovereignty philosophy that had birthed it. So when Hydro’s main generation successor OPG launched the Darlington B competition in 2008, and AECL quixotically put the enriched-fueled ACR-1000 head to head with French and American competitors, and OPG selected it as the winner, nobody batted an eye.

Until they saw the price tag. At which point the Ontario government balked, canceled the competition, and launched the disastrous Green Energy Act, which favoured intermittent renewable generation, instead.

Industrial strategic inertia carried the ACR into 2010, when another Hydro generation successor, Bruce Power , used it as the technological basis for an unsuccessful foray into Alberta.

Nuclear amnesia: The CANDU Identity

CANDU’s future ever since has been monumentally uncertain. Though SNC Lavalin acquired the rights to “pure” CANDU—natural uranium fueled, heavy water moderated and cooled—the technology’s original and arguably natural partner OPG—CANDU’s co-inventor—has shown nearly no interest in it since early in Kathleen Wynne’s premiership.

Ironically, the geopolitical and commercial realities that led CANDU’s inventors to incorporate fuel- and technology-sovereignty into the reactor’s design are much more sharply defined today than in the early 1960s. There is no indication America’s shambolic approach to nuclear antiproliferation will change, which means Canada can expect foreign hyper-scrutiny and micro-management of spent fuel when and if we adopt the light water fuel cycle. “Buy American” was not just a Trump mantra; it’s a Biden one too—and America looks on track to elect either Trump or Biden this November. With CANDU, we don’t have to jump through any of these hoops.

It’s like a collective amnesia has settled over the Canadian industry. We are like Jason Bourne—superbly trained, awesomely skilled, virtually undefeatable… but we don’t know who we are or why we got so good at what we do.

CANDU’s 2024 face. Now a partnership between AECL (which still owns the intellectual property) and AtkinsRéalis (formerly SNC Lavalin). All that’s missing is a utility buyer. One of ATR’s challenges is to convince prospective buyers that this partnership looks at least as much like a reactor vendor as GEH, whose BWRX-300 still exists mostly on paper, and 80 percent of whose major components are licensed, in the U.S. but on other reactor designs.

So OPG touts the supply chain benefits Ontario will allegedly receive for essentially being a guinea pig for the unlicensed, untested GEH BWRX-300—as if Canada, a reliable NATO partner and NPT signatory, had not been, 8 short years ago, cut off from the supply of the enriched feedstock to make medical isotopes, and as if there’s no such thing as a strong “Buy American” trend in current American politics.

The debate that never happened, and what it could look like

It seems amazing that all this has happened with:

  1. No formal competition for reactors. Where Ontario opened vendor selection in 2008 to be fair to vendors in other countries, in 2021 we essentially sole-sourced a foreign design while ignoring the technology that has powered Ontario for decades, and that powers Ontario right this minute.
  2. Virtually no comment from either the utility, vendor, federal or provincial government, or media regarding the cost of a MWh of energy from the untested, unproven sole-sourced machine.
  3. Silence on how “Buy American” will square with promises on strong involvement of Canadian workers in the supply chain for the new reactors.
  4. Silence on the realistic likelihood of Ontario being the global supply chain centre for technology invented in North Carolina.
  5. No public debate about the advisability of trading the proven-over-decades domestic economic benefits and fuel/technology security of CANDU for the litany of uncertainties attached to a first-of-a-kind foreign-fueled SMR.

We speculated, in the CNWC Newsletter Spring 2024, that the debate over all these points has been behind closed doors because none of the reasons for sole-sourcing the BWRX-300 would survive an open debate.

Well, here’s to open debates. We invite anybody to rebut the points made above.

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