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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the September 2010 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.31, No.3.

On the Other Hand

by Jeremy Whitlock

Folks in the nuclear industry are generally of the "glass-half-full" sort. Or rather, folks STILL in the nuclear industry are generally of this sort, because you don't stick around long if you're not.

The "half-full/half-empty" thing has been around since the industry's inception. The basic science, after all, is the science of doomsday weapons. On the other hand it's also the science of the most sustainable energy source on the planet. Both the yin and the yang were as true in the 1940s as they are today.

We're a public relations nightmare because of this. Surviving in this game basically means managing bad news on an almost daily basis: never mind what you hear on the morning news on the way to work; it's the version circulating by first coffee break that comes closer to the truth.

Radiation causes cancer. On the other hand, radiation cures cancer. The self-contradiction is, quite literally, in our blood.

We used to be much better at it. We once partially melted a research reactor core at Chalk River, which, in 1952, was the first major reactor accident on the planet. On the other hand, with nobody hurt and all radioactivity contained, it immediately presented itself as an unprecedented opportunity: an opportunity to teach the world about new reactor safety concepts, an opportunity to develop large-scale decontamination and environmental mitigation processes, and an opportunity to rebuild a reactor (then five years old - the end of its initially predicted lifespan) and upgrade its performance.

In 14 months the NRX was operating again, with a new core and new control systems: safer, more powerful, and ready to serve for decades to come. It suffices to say that the government of the day was the "glass-half-full" type.

We've had more than our share of kicks in the pants since: uranium fuel on fire, pressure tubes failing prematurely, lead blankets and plywood covers left inside cooling systems, pump impellers rattling fuel to pieces, turbines dropping into the Bay of Fundy, reactors going over budget, reactors being cancelled, reactors going supercritical and then almost being cancelled, seven of Ontario's CANDUs laid up simultaneously, refurbishments behind schedule, pumps without backup to their backup power, and regulator Presidents getting sacked.

These were all "bad days". Most taught lessons. Some changed the industry. All were survived.

Which brings us to 2010.

In the "annus horribilis" of 2010, a perfect storm of bad news buffeted the nuclear community from all sides:

The NRU reactor, fresh from the media circus of 2007 that ultimately decapitated the CNSC, limped into its 15th month of repairs in August, with every excruciating detail of its inspection, welding, re-welding, and schedule slippage paraded before the salivating media along the way.

Refurbishment projects across the country, in many ways as complicated, or more, than new build projects, fell further behind schedule.

Ontario continued to stick its head in the sand on new reactor construction, while throwing money at solar and wind projects like a drunken sailor with a pocket-full of five dollar bills at a stripper bar. Meanwhile New Brunswick, already sitting on the best reactor design in the world, started flirting with the French.

And hanging over everyone's heads, the long-promised break-up and partial sell-off of AECL: the flagship of the Canadian nuclear enterprise, the brain trust of CANDU design, the historical heart of "Canuke know-how", the place of Nobel Prizes and superconducting cyclotrons, the quintessentially Canadian general that lead an army of quietly competent Canadian companies into world-wide battle for neutron share - and succeeded beyond most expectations... the True North Strong and Nuclear in the flesh... was now in the hands of a government that had heard the word "nuclear" far too often for its own comfort during its tenure.

But even now our seeds of optimism find purchase: The NRU, formerly invisible and now known to most Canadians, was diagnosed and repaired by the very multi-faceted R&D infrastructure that makes Chalk River Labs an indispensable jewel.

Refurbishments break new ground every day, and provide aging management lessons that are years ahead of any other reactor design.

Provincial wariness on new-build is understandable, and flirting with the French is a time-honoured Canadian tradition.

And finally, change can be good.

Eternal optimists? Perhaps, but we prefer "astute observers", ever the vigilant guardians of Canada's scientific legacy are we.

After all, it's not whether the glass is half empty or half full - it's the second-derivative of the boundary between the two that's important.

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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