Restarting Bruce reactors tricky

John Spears
Toronto Star
September 10, 2004

Critics point to Bruce’s repair needs. Power companies say plant is needed.

Ontario’s decision to open negotiations on restarting two idle nuclear reactors is getting a mixed reception.

Two watchdog groups condemned the move, but the lobby group for the province’s generating companies said the move is an inevitable part of securing a supply of electricity.

Energy Minister Dwight Duncan has hired David Santangeli to advise the province on negotiations with Bruce Power, which operates six units at the Bruce nuclear station near Kincardine.

Bruce Power is considering restarting two mothballed units, both of which need extensive repairs, but says it needs to know more about the market for power before it embarks on the huge project.

Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, warned that the project is fraught with uncertainty, in part because the technical issues are daunting.

The boilers that produce the steam to drive the electricity generators are badly damaged and must be replaced, but they are encased in the concrete that surrounds the reactor core. Cutting them out and replacing them will be a complex task.

Another unknown is how many of the hundreds of pressure tubes in the reactor core must be replaced. The tubes contain the uranium fuel that powers the reactor.

In addition, Adams said the safety shutdown systems of the Bruce A plant, which is one of the province’s oldest, aren’t the same standard as the systems in newer plants.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission might decide to order upgrades before permitting the Bruce units to start up, Adams said.

The potential for big cost increases is great, Adams said, and inevitably Bruce Power will want the province to underwrite much of the risk.

“We’ve got the makings of a poisonous public-private partnership,” he said.

When times are good, Bruce Power will want the profits, he said, but “on the bad days the public are the owners.”

Dave Martin of Greenpeace was equally skeptical.

“They are going to guarantee a market for nuclear power in the province and it will have a huge cost for ratepayers,” he said. “It will subvert the electricity market. It will be a huge disincentive to conservation and renewable energy. And the risk will be substantial.”

“The question is: How much of a sweetheart deal will the McGuinty government give Bruce Power?” he said.

The province has given local utilities an initial limit of $225 million to fund conservation programs, he said, yet they are prepared to negotiate a multi-billion dollar nuclear deal.

Dave Butters, president of the Association of Power Producers of Ontario, said negotiations with firms like Bruce Power are inevitable as the government moves toward a hybrid electricity system – part regulated and part market-driven.

“This is just a kind of reality we have to deal with to ensure that Ontario has the supply that it needs at the price it can afford,” he said.

The important thing is to make sure whatever deals are negotiated are “even-handed and transparent,” he said.

Glen Estill of Sky Generation Inc., a wind power firm, said there are valid reasons for having separate discussions with companies like Bruce Power because nuclear reactors have unique features.

But he said the discussions should be geared to protecting the public from hidden costs such as the expense of decommissioning worn-out plants. Nuclear operators should also have to bear the full cost of insuring against serious accidents, he said.

Without those features spelled out, “nobody knows what the cost is,” he said.

“It puts an almost unlimited liability on the province.”

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