CANDU falls on hard times

Stan Josey
The Toronto Star
August 14, 1997


Problems have plagued Ontario’s nuclear program

CANDU, Canada’s much-touted nuclear power generator, has long been advertised as the best in the world. But it has fallen on hard times in Ontario.

Ontario Hydro, whose nuclear program has been plagued by leaks, malfunctions and management problems, has decided to cut its losses and close the oldest seven of its nuclear generators – about one-third of its nuclear power-producing capacity – likely for good.

One other nuclear generating unit at the Bruce station was “laid up” or closed last year without fanfare because it needed costly repairs.

The utility has announced it plans to spend up to $8 billion to replace the power lost by closing these units and to refurbish its newer generating units at the Pickering, Darlington and Bruce nuclear stations.

The moves come in the wake of a devastating report on Hydro’s nuclear program.

The unique reactor design put Canada in forefront of nuclear power

While Hydro has been saying it can provide 65 per cent of Ontario’s power needs from nuclear sources, it has actually provided only about 50 per cent in recent years because reactors have been out of service for maintenance and retooling, as well as because of leaks and other problems.

The CANDU system was created at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, about 225 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, in the 1940s and ’50s by a group of scientists who thrust Canada into the forefront of nuclear power generation with their unique reactor design.

CANDU uses regular uranium that is formed into tiny fuel rods to create a chain reaction in the core of the reactor.

That, in turn, heats heavy water or deuterium. This heated heavy water then passes through heat exchangers that create steam which then drives large steam turbines to create power.

The Pickering nuclear plant, with all eight reactor units running in top order – something that hasn’t happened much in the last decade – could provide 20 per cent of Ontario’s power needs; that’s enough power to light all of Metro Toronto.

The CANDU system is considered by many to be safer than the U.S. system, which uses enriched uranium and ordinary water as a coolant.

It is also considered safer than the Soviet-developed system that uses graphite powder as a moderator. It was graphite that caught fire when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine blew up in April, 1986, killing at least 30 people outright and exposing about 5 million to radioactive fallout.

The Pickering nuclear station has had a number of radioactive leaks and spills in recent years that have caught the attention of the federal nuclear regulatory agency.

But, most experts agree, there has been no danger to Hydro employees or the public.

In fact, they say, if you look at nuclear power production as an industry, compared to the auto industry or coal mining, it has a have much better worker and public safety record.

But the problems that have forced Hydro to reduce its nuclear capability drastically were not expected to occur so soon.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which sold Hydro the units built over the last 27 years, told the utility they would have a 30-year lifespan.

However, Tom Adams of Energy Probe says that the oldest of the Pickering units – Unit 1 in the A plant – is not far off the 30-year mark, at 26 years of operation.

Adams said that, in 1982, Hydro was faced with a major reactor building program at Pickering and Darlington, and arbitrarily boosted the life expectancy of the units to 40 years as an accounting move.

Cracks appeared prematurely in reactor pressure tubes at Pickering in 1983, resulting in $1 billion in repairs to the A plant there.

The same retubing was due to be done at the Bruce station in Kincardine, but now has been put off indefinitely.

Ontario Hydro president Allan Kupcis resigned at the start of the utility’s board meeting on Tuesday, just before the critical report on the utility’s nuclear division was tabled.

That report, authored by Carl Andognini, the utility’s chief nuclear officer, found the Ontario nuclear stations’ performance to be “minimally acceptable.”

But it also said that they would be allowed to continue operating in this condition in the United States.

The Atomic Energy Control Board, Canada’s nuclear regulatory agency, criticized “human errors and operational failures” when it granted Hydro a limited nine-month licence renewal for Pickering in June.

AECB spokesperson Robert Potvin said officials there are still scratching their heads over Hydro’s admission two weeks ago that it has been trying to fix a leak of radioactive tritium-laced heavy water from a facility on the grounds of the Pickering station for 18 years.

The AECB did not learn about this leak until July 25 of this year.

“This is definitely an incident we should have known about at the very beginning,” Potvin said.

Another major embarrassment for Hydro lately was the revelation in The Star recently, that 1,000 tonnes of copper and zinc washings from the brass heat condensers at Pickering and other provincial power-producing facilities had washed into Lake Ontario over a 10-year period, without notification to the proper environmental authorities.

Canada’s nuclear regulatory agency has been critical of Hydro procedures

Rather than continuing to pump money into the aging and failing nuclear units, Hydro now has decided to close them down and concentrate its financial resources on upgrading the remaining newer operating nuclear generators.

Meanwhile, the provincial officials have said that Hydro’s monopoly as the province’s supplier of electricity likely will end in the near future as the North American power grid is thrown open to competition.

Previously, other potential power suppliers, such as Ajax Hydro which wants to produce local power from a steam plant, have been thwarted by Hydro’s enforcement of its monopoly on power production.

Likewise, a private firm that wanted to produce power at a refurbished private dam on the Trent River just north of Trenton also has had a long and frustrating battle with Hydro.

Nuclear watchdog groups, such as Durham Nuclear Awareness, say one reason Hydro is cutting its nuclear losses now is that power produced in this way will not be competitive when the electricity market is thrown open to competition from private producers.


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