Alarm over inexperienced Bruce operator

Norm Rubin
Letter to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
November 19, 2002

President Linda J. Keen
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
280 Slater Street
P.O. Box 1046
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5S9
Fax: (613) 992-2915 (3 pages)

Dear President Keen,

We would like to comment on three related regulatory matters of great importance – one past, one present, and one future. We believe that each of these matters involves the recognition of an “obvious truth” concerning nuclear-safety regulation.

The past regulatory matter: We would like to commend you and the CNSC for requiring financial shutdown guarantees from Bruce Power (lessee-operator-licensee of the Bruce A and B Nuclear Generating Stations) and aggressively acting to ensure these guarantees as it became clear that Bruce Power’s majority owner — British Energy PLC — was approaching bankruptcy. By requiring that a nuclear operator have a minimum “depth of pocket” to care for its facility for 6 months without generating electricity or revenue, you have responded promptly and appropriately to protect the public from a threat that was essentially unprecedented in Canada. By doing so, you have also acknowledged an important “obvious truth” – that it takes more than an approved design, licensed operators, on-site regulatory inspectors and similar “traditional” regulatory requirements to ensure nuclear safety: it also takes financial solvency on the part of the operator. While this requirement has brought CNSC into the domain of financial regulation — a new and relatively uncharted domain for CNSC — we believe that the wisdom and necessity of this move is obvious, at least in hindsight, to any intelligent observer.

The present regulatory matter: Because British Energy remains insolvent except for a short-term emergency loan from the British government, expiring November 29th, active discussions are taking place about the post-November-29th future of British Energy, Bruce Power, and the financial guarantees that CNSC has required from Bruce Power. As you must know at least from published accounts, Cameco Corp. of Saskatchewan — currently a 15% minority partner in Bruce Power, and a CNSC licensee as a miner and refiner of uranium — has publicly stated its interest in significantly increasing its share in Bruce Power. According to reports in the business press, a consortium of Cameco, TransCanada PipeLines Ltd. of Calgary and Borealis Capital Corp. of Toronto is currently negotiating such a purchase with British Energy.

Energy Probe is concerned that such a purchase would transfer control of Bruce Power, licensed operator of two nuclear generating stations, from British Energy — an experienced operator of several nuclear generating stations in the U.K. and the U.S. — to three companies with no experience at operating nuclear generating stations. We believe that prudence, public interest and common sense once again dictate that CNSC must intervene to ensure that high-level management decisions about the operation of the Bruce nuclear stations must be made with due attention to the unique demands of this inherently hazardous technology. Just as CNSC has recognized that even a well regulated and shutdown nuclear station cannot be safe in the hands of an insolvent operator, we would urge you to recognize that even a well regulated nuclear station cannot be safe in the hands of an inexperienced operator with no demonstrated competence in this field.

We have by no means determined exactly how an inexperienced operator with no demonstrated competence in this field could remedy that problem and ensure that top-level decisions are made with due attention to the demands of nuclear power, but in our opinion the range of approaches for a nuclear-safety regulator to consider includes at least the following:

  • CNSC could insist that nuclear licensees without prior experience be required to undertake an apprentice program — that no nuclear reactor licenses will be issued to operators without satisfactory prior experience in operating nuclear reactors;
  • CNSC could require the certification of a reactor licensee similar to the way CNSC now requires certification of individual reactor operators — with prescribed requirements for education and demonstrations of competence through examinations. The analogous requirements for a reactor licensee could include senior executive staff and board-level committees with responsibility for reactor safety;
  • particularly in the case of new licensees, the CNSC could adapt its general regulatory approach, away from the “top-level” and “collegial” and toward the “prescriptive” and “adversary” — in effect, treating an inexperienced licensee as if it is inexperienced.

We would of course be pleased to discuss these and other options with you or your staff or Commission, should you consider that desirable.

The future regulatory matter: In August of this year, Ontario Power Generation and CNSC discovered a station-wide violation of minimum safety standards for “environmental qualification” of safety-critical equipment throughout the Darlington station – specifically, that “steam-proof” rooms containing steam-sensitive equipment (whose continued operation would be necessary to ensure the post-accident safety of the station) had holes in their walls. That violation clearly had the potential to prompt the shutdown of Canada’s largest generating station at a time when the Ontario power grid was already perilously close to collapse even with Darlington operating. We do not know whether the grid’s shortage of reserve capacity was a factor — consciously or unconsciously — in the CNSC’s decision to allow OPG to continue to operate that station in violation of its license conditions while finding and plugging the holes in the walls. And we note with relief that the holes have now been plugged, and that we did make it through that month of calculated risk (as well as the previous years of unknown risk) without experiencing one of the postulated accidents that created the requirement for steam-proofing those rooms.

But the incident raises a general nuclear-regulatory problem that we believe CNSC must address as soon as possible, and to our knowledge never has: The CNSC may be placed in an untenable position where the continued operation of unsafe nuclear stations is essential for the ongoing operation of an entire nuclear grid. While the holes in the walls at Darlington were arguably a small, temporary, and “survivable” safety violation, there is of course no guarantee that the next problem discovered will be. Faced with the discovery of a serious “new” risk — comparable to or more serious than, for example, the discovery of pressure-tube embrittlement in 1983 or of “fuel string relocation” in 1993 — CNSC might be faced with a practical choice between perpetuating an unacceptable reactor-accident risk on the one hand, and bringing the Ontario electrical system down on the other hand. We would submit that CNSC would be wise and prudent to ensure in advance that it is never forced into making such a choice.

Unfortunately, the present state of the Ontario electricity grid and marketplace may already make this vital flexibility unattainable this winter and next summer. Further, the planned return to service of the four shutdown reactors at Pickering-A and two of the four shutdown reactors at Bruce-A will likely make that situation worse, not better, by increasing the Ontario grid’s reliance on reactors of essentially identical design.

We suggest that CNSC should recognize that no nuclear reactors can be considered acceptably safe, or adequately regulated, if they cannot be taken out of service without thereby creating catastrophic or unacceptable consequences. We believe that recognition of this “obvious truth” would naturally lead CNSC to require minimum reserve levels (planned and actual) and maximum grid shares of nuclear power, or at least maximum grid shares of power provided by essentially identical nuclear reactors. We realize that these activities, like ascertaining the financial solvency of a licensee, would bring CNSC to examine matters that have traditionally not been considered part of a nuclear regulator’s job. But we believe that it is unacceptable not to do so.

Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your response and are always available to discuss these matters further. I myself will be in Ottawa on Thursday November 21st to testify on bill C-4, should that time and place be convenient for you or your staff.

Sincerely,

Norman Rubin
Director, Nuclear Research
and Senior Policy Analyst

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