Some readers who have followed http://energyfromthorium.com or more recently http://bravenewclimate.com may know a regular contributor, DV82XL and because I believe his wisdom and obvious experience should be shared I have asked him to contribute on the topic of nuclear regulations and nuclear regulatory bodies.
Q1. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has 2200. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has around 3200 employees (as of 2006). The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) currently has a total staff of around 600 people. These seem like rather large organizations. Do they need to be so big?
A1:The International Atomic Energy Agency, (IAEA) is like every other UN apparatus: it exists primarily to maintain its own existence, and has long ceased to have any utility (assuming it ever did) in regulating nuclear matters on the international level. It is clear that it has failed in its primary role of preventing nuclear proliferation, its inspectors have no authority, and its investigative branch is incompetent. It would seem that any nation that wishes to develop nuclear weapons can with impunity and without any interference at all from IAEA. They compensate by annoying the nuclear sector in those countries like Canada, who have no interest in nuclear weapons, and good internal security with officious procedures, and grave pronouncements, pretending that they are making the world a safer place.
The American Nuclear Regulatory Commission, (NRC) the independent regulatory agency that oversees the civilian use of nuclear power in the United States, is another hide-bound and bloated bureaucracy. In 1979, the credibility of the NRC, was questioned after the accident that took place at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Stung by accusations of inadequate enforcement of regulations at the Harrisburg plant, the Commission has become exceedingly conservative in its approach, to the point of paralysis in some areas.
The situation for type approving new reactor designs in the States for example, is a disgrace, and the regulator has made it clear that new approvals are unlikely in the US, for any time in the near future. This is tacitly recognizing the fact that the NRC itself is mired down in problems and political interference. In Canada the CNSC recently held hearings on the type-approval process, and there was a reasonable amount of input from the public. We are still waiting for the formal report, but at least in the Montreal sessions that I attended, commonsense and reason seemed to be the rule.
The U.S. industry is suffering from a spectrum of problems, and it would be unfair to lay these all at the feet of the NRC, however there is no doubt in many people’s minds that revitalization of the industry in the U.S. will not occur until there is a rationalization of the regulatory atmosphere, starting with a reorganization of the NRC.
Q2. Is Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) a regulator?
A2:Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) is not a regulator or even a government agency. It is a Crown Corporation, that conducts business like any other company, the difference being that it is owned by the Crown in Canada. Furthermore it to be broken up and its several divisions will be sold to the private sector once suitable buyer can be found, and others will be spun down and eliminated. The high percentage of state-owned nuclear reactor companies like AECL (Rosatom, Areva, and KHNP) is a simple, but powerful, symbol of the state of trade protectionism in the area of nuclear reactors.
AECL is made up of several business units, the major ones being: The CANDU Reactor Division; The Research and Technology Division (Chalk river laboratories, Whiteshell Laboratories, and the Underground Research Laboratory ); the Waste and Decommissioning Management Division; the Global Nuclear Products and Services Division; and the Nuclear Isotope Division, among other, smaller projects, and concerns.
Some of these are of interest to the private sector, and the Canadian government, wants to sell those, others will be kept, given to other agencies (the labs for example to be taken over by the National Research Council, one would think), and some others being shut down outright.
The Canadian regulator is the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) established in 2000 under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act and reports to Parliament through the Minister of Natural Resources. CNSC was created to replace the former Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), which was founded in 1946.
Dr. Michael Binder, who was appointed in January 2008 as President and Chief Executive Officer, seems to be taking a more proactive role in convincing Canadians that the nuclear sector in Canada is safe and secure. Lately he wrote a rather scathing denunciation of Helen Caldicott’s utterances on town of Port Hope which has had an old uranium processing facility decommissioned and cleaned up. Caldicott had extended the opinion that the whole town was contaminated, and should be immediately abandoned, this without a a scrap of proof, not even a single measurement.
While it is too early to tell if there is going to be any sea-change in the way the Commission conducts itself, the situation with the Canadian regulator is marginally positive.
Q3. It seems that Russia and China are moving forward at a rapid pace compared to the US. Is the US political system the biggest stumbling block to their success?
A3: Places like China and Russia do have an advantage in that dictatorships can at least, ‘make the trains that run on time,’ (as was said of Mussolini) the other costs however are often not worth it. The Russians in particular, have always had a somewhat more cavalier attitude to the subject of nuclear safety, one that would be unacceptable to us, as demonstrated by events at Chernobyl, and the jury is still out on how responsible the Chinese will be with nuclear energy.
Anthropogenic Global Warming, peak oil, and similar impending catastrophes, may spell the end of democracy as we know it, however, until then we must play by the current ground-rules we have in the West.
Q4. Why are the Nuclear reactors in Canada now so expensive and how much of that expense is approval process?
A4:The following table gives the record of recent CANDU 6 projects undertaken by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, you will note that in places there aren’t too many layers thing can get done on time and on budget:
1996 Cernavoda-1 Romania On budget, on schedule
1997 Wolsong-2 South Korea On budget, on schedule
1998 Wolsong-3 South Korea On budget, on schedule
1999 Wolsong-4 South Korea On budget, on schedule
2002 Qinshan-4 China On budget, 6 weeks ahead of schedule
2003 Qinshan-5 China On budget, 4 months ahead of schedule
2007 Cernavoda-2 Romania On budget, on schedule
Meanwhile back in Canada almost every project has gone over budget by an average factor of 2.
There is also the recent refurbishment of Wolsong-1 in South Korea, which is on schedule, compared to the Point Lepreau Refurbishment project in New Brunswick, now almost two years behind target. Both are being done by AECL through its Life Extension Projects, the offshore one is on time, the domestic one in the hole.
As for the various approval processes, this is an area too vulnerable to outside interference by those that wish to delay a new build, or generally hobble nuclear energy. Streamlining these processes into one or two would help, but also there needs to be a mechanism whereby the appeal and counter-appeal privileges of those objecting to a decision by the comission can be restricted to prevent the process being used simply to delay a project to run up the costs, and interfere with the timetable to make it late. Forcing delays and cost overruns, is a standard tactic of antinuclear groups throughout the world.
There are any number of reasons new reactor builds, and refurbishments run over budget and over schedule in Canada, and not elsewhere, even if they are being done by the same organization. It part it is due to excessive regulation, or I should say the excessive application of regulation. It has been my opinion that the nuclear industry should be moved towards an inspection system similar to the one used in commercial air transportation manufacturing and maintenance that places more responsibility on the individual executing the job, and less on full independent inspections. As in aviation, those signing off on a job they have done need be aware that they are accepting unlimited criminal liability for their decision, and a culture must be fostered that is supportive when they refuse to sign.
Q5. Here’s a link about an innovative small reactor and why they are likely unable to get to market
“price to license a design will be $50 million and the annual licensing fees another $4.7 million”
I see this $50 million figure a lot. Why is it so costly? How can this be justified?
A5: The cost is excessive, and the process too complex for type-approval of new nuclear reactors, not just in the States, but everywhere. Generally speaking once a design certification application has been submitted, takes between 36 and 60-plus months to complete the review and rule making, depending on whether the agency previously has reviewed and approved the technology. Some attempt has been made by several regulators to streamline the process, but it is still an overly complex procedure, and fraught with delay.
It is this last aspect that causes most of the problems. Investors are loath to invest in ideas that will take as long as five years to get approval to even start building a plant, and even then it might be rejected by the regulator and need a total redesign, and re-submission for approval, starting the process over again from scratch.
The problems seem to be internal to the agencies themselves and are the consequence of a culture that is badly in need of change.
Q6. The regulators have done some things right. Nuclear plants have an amazing safety record since the Three Mile Island incident. Have they outlived their usefulness? Are they just inventing ways to stay employed considering this record was pretty well met 20 years ago or more?
A6: I am a bit tired of regulators patting themselves on the back for doing such a good job. Somehow they seem to think that without their constant and somewhat anal attention to detail, operators and owners of large utilities would treat a very, very expensive asset so cavalierly that they would let it be destroyed. Large, dangerous assets have been managed by corporations for centuries, without the sort of over site that nuclear regulators seem to think is necessary. The illusion that the nuclear power plant twenty miles down the road is a danger, and the tanker trains running through the middle of the town filled with anything from ammonia, to propane is not, is yet another example of poor risk assessment. The attitude of many of the world’s regulators is doing nothing to help.