Monday, June 29, 2009

Putting safety into question

Needless to say, the latest revelations about safety concerns with effectively all of AECL's CANDU nuclear reactors figure to be glossed over just as thoroughly as the recent concerns with the MAPLE and Chalk River isotope reactors. But in addition to providing evidence that nuclear technology is anything but free from trouble and uncertainty, the latest news would seem to cut to the core of any attempt to claim Saskatchewan's geography serves to favour nuclear power over healthier alternatives:
Canadian nuclear safety regulators say they have underestimated the seriousness of a design feature at the country's electricity-producing reactors that would cause them to experience dangerous power pulses during a major accident.
The discovery prompted the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, to warn that it may have to order nuclear power plants to run at less-than-full power indefinitely to compensate for what it deems less-safe conditions at the stations, according to the document.

The commission and the three utilities that operate reactors – Ontario Power Generation, NB Power, and Hydro-Québec – will likely have to spend “considerable resources” dealing with safety issues related to the problem and still may not be able to resolve it fully, it said.
Although positive reactivity is not well known outside the nuclear industry, problems connected with it prompted Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to scrap its two Maple reactors in May, 2008, after spending more than $500-million on them, leading to a crisis in the supply of medical isotopes.

According to the document, commission staff have always known that Candu nuclear power plants have positive reactivity, but they conceded that they miscalculated the magnitude of the condition. For instance, they said they underestimated a number used to measure it by 50 per cent.
Mr. Rzentkowski said the commission would consider ordering the stations to run at less than full power if safety margins shrink to unacceptable levels, with the Pickering and Darlington reactors in Ontario the first to be considered for such output cuts.

Greenpeace asked for records about positive reactivity compiled at the commission from Sept. 1 last year to March 31. But Mr. Rzentkowski said he thought the undated document, which was marked as a draft, was likely written in 2007 and was used in discussions with nuclear utility representatives.

The positive reactivity problem is highly technical, and has arisen because of the unique design of Canada's reactors. According to the document, the main factors “that introduce this hazard” are the Candu's use of natural uranium as fuel and the internal structure of the reactors, in which the heavy water used to cool them is separated from the water that moderates the pace of atomic chain reactions to safe levels.
So what does the revelation mean? Remember that the closest the Sask Party has ever come to offering a justification for pushing ahead with a nuclear reactor a vague claim that since uranium is mined in Saskatchewan, it should be used in Saskatchewan.

But even the nuclear industry's own UDP recognized that refining isn't a viable choice for the province. As a result, the only way Saskatchewan would actually have any comparative advantage over other jurisdictions in generating nuclear power would be if natural uranium can be used.

Which means in effect that if the Wall government were to push ahead with nuclear power generation, it would have one of two choices. On the one hand, it could select a non-CANDU model - which would eliminate any pretense of competitive advantage and thoroughly undermine Wall's apparent plan to buy into AECL. Or instead, the province could voluntarily choose a design which poses well-known and escalating risks which are now close to coming to fruition in the form of massive costs and potential shutdowns.

But what about the much-vaunted regulation which the CNSC in particular has spent so much time trumpeting? Well, it apparently wasn't enough to push the CNSC itself to make the known issues public two years ago. And that was before the Cons strongarmed Parliament into overruling the CNSC itself on safety issues at Chalk River.

So there's no reason for confidence that the CNSC itself is telling the public the whole story about the risks surrounding the industry under its regulation. And it's tough to take much comfort from an organization whose mandate seems to have shifted from actually regulating anything to a PR exercise in proclaiming what a wonderful job it's doing.

Finally, it's worth noting that the similarity between the issues which caused the MAPLE isotope reactors to be abandoned and the ones also present in CANDU reactors may push Wall's federal allies to the opposite side of the table. At the moment, there's a regular food fight going on between the Cons and the Libs as to whether or not the MAPLE project should have been abandoned - but Harper and company can hardly make a credible claim to have done the right thing by scrapping MAPLE while promoting the construction of new reactors which face the exact same problems.

In sum, then, today's revelations provide some compelling evidence both that the nuclear industry is less safe than it claims and that known issues are being kept from the public. And that reality certainly can't help the Sask Party's case to rush forward rather than taking a thorough look at the obvious risks from Saskatchewan's perspective.

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