IN AN OSHAWA, ONTARIO UNIVERSITY lab, a half-hour drive to the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) Pickering Nuclear plant, Professor§§ Glenn Harvel is checking in on a series of waste management and radionuclide monitoring experiments. The work he is undertaking with a team of graduate students at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) is part of a five-university decommissioning research initiative developed through OPG and Canada’s University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering (UNENE), whose mandate is well- reflected in its name. Each of the five universities has a specific research and development (R&D) project, cumulatively building upon existing international decommissioning knowledge and practices.

With almost a half century of generation behind it, the eight-unit Pickering plant (six operating units and two in safe storage) located just east of Toronto, is slated to end operation in 2024. In keeping with Canada’s regulatory requirements, the financing for shutdown and decommissioning activities have long been in place. Now, like a pre-retirement couple meticulously planning how to spend their nest egg, OPG has set in motion a process for ensuring a post-operation journey that will address site characteristics and the needs of the community surrounding it, while applying the principles and standards of federal regulation and collective international wisdom. The multi-year research programme is one aspect of OPG’s quest to further innovate existing practices, as it considers how to tackle the decades of safe storage and decommissioning projects ahead.

Pickering was a pioneer in applying Candu technology to large-scale generation. Pickering 1 was commissioned in 1971 and set a path for 19 more generation units across three stations in Ontario. More Candu plants followed in two additional Canadian provinces and six other countries. Leading an industry on the cutting edge of a new technology, as Pickering did in its infancy, can be exciting. But sometimes picking up the baton farther up the line can also be useful. Decommissioning consists of projects that rarely come in small packages. A myriad of complex technical details and daily encounters with the unexpected are all part and parcel of the journey. OPG will benefit from significant experience in other countries like the USA, the United Kingdom and Japan. It can also draw on its own project management experience gained in its safe storage of Pickering 2&3 in the early 2000s as well as its current $12-billion refurbishment project at Darlington Nuclear, just 35km east of Pickering. There, a phrase coined early on “measure thrice, cut once” reflects a commitment to planning excellence as a path to project success.

Harvel reflects on the decommissioning experience internationally: even within the same country, waste owners have had very different outcomes. One of the biggest differentiators between projects that went well and those that have struggled was the time and capacity for effective upfront planning. He believes OPG’s approach and planning expertise combined with the opportunity to borrow from international learnings and some closer to home will serve it well.

Domestically, Ontario’s neighbouring province, Québec, shut down a one-unit nuclear power station in 2012. Hydro-Québec’s Gentilly 2 site is currently in its dormancy project phase.

As well, there are the decommissioning efforts of federally-owned Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. (AECL) and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), a government-owned, contractor-operated (GoCo) company. CNL was set up by AECL, to manage and operate its sites and run the country’s premier nuclear science and technology (S&T) facilities and programmes.

CNL is well into decommissioning of several comparatively smaller projects including nuclear research and demonstration plants. It is also managing one of Canada’s most significant environmental remediation projects: The Port Hope Area Initiative, a 10-year, $1.28 billion cleanup of a legacy radium and uranium refinery, as well as the large site remediation currently ongoing at its Chalk River headquarters.

While there will be lessons to learn from all projects, both domestic and international, OPG will also have to look at the unique characteristics of the Pickering plant, the site, its location, as well as the expectations of the urban community that surrounds it, given its proximity to Toronto. Another consideration will be the tremendous economic and operating potential for the ideally-situated site, post-operation and post-decommissioning. In its 2016 preliminary decommissioning plan, the company identifies an end state that restores the site for other OPG uses. The site holds an important place on Ontario’s transmission grid and is well-positioned in immediate proximity to a highly-educated workforce. Part of that local workforce will continue to be immersed in nuclear operation at Darlington for the next 30 years, along with the associated supply chain and that well-connected research community.

Decommissioning as a kick-start to innovation

Of all of Canada’s past and current decommissioning projects and even of the international models OPG is studying, it is CNL’s Chalk River site that may be most instructive. Sitting in the same province as Pickering, a couple of hours drive from Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, the Chalk River site is home to the recently retired National Research Universal (NRU) reactor. NRU supplied medical isotopes to millions of people worldwide and served as the test reactor for the Candu fleet during its 61-year operation. The campus of labs and buildings where it resides is steeped in a rich science and technology history.

While the NRU ceased operation in March 2018, the Chalk River campus is anything but dead. There is excitement in the air mixed in with the construction dust as the birth of innovation occurs in direct contrast to the demolition activities surrounding it. The removal and cleanup of old buildings, trailers and other infrastructure, is making way for new research facilities that will allow CNL to further its vision as an internationally-recognised nuclear R&D hub. The NRU, now in guaranteed shutdown, has a planned decommissioning start date of 2028. In the interim, CNL has recognised a huge research opportunity in the NRU’s aged plant components that will inform life management of both Candu-technology plants and light water reactors worldwide as part of CNL’s recently-announced Centre for Reactor Sustainability.

Less romantically, CNL is progressing through the sometimes gritty particulars of detailed work that comes with planning and executing the technical, construction, regulatory and public engagement activities necessary for a more than $7-billion decommissioning and campus environmental remediation project. For Pickering, it will be illuminating. Some of the technical choices may vary as OPG considers the specifics of its own site, community and goals. What the two projects do share are the same overarching regulatory framework, societal expectations, Candu technology and waste management challenges. It also shares the opportunities associated with a pre- existing highly-skilled nuclear workforce.

AECL and CNL believe they have something else of great value to Canada as the country pursues its nuclear S&T development and decommissioning goals. They have an import of global expertise: highly-skilled and knowledgeable people who learned the hard lessons on projects, elsewhere and can help Canada build its own bench strength in decommissioning and waste innovation which in turn it can export globally.

Canada’s waste leadership

The Canadian nuclear waste industry has set its sights on being the place others want to come to benchmark excellence. CNL and OPG belong to a group of senior industry leaders who have been collaboratively working through the CANDU Owners Group (COG) to develop an industry vision and integrated approach to decommissioning and waste management. The COG Radioactive Waste Leadership Forum (RWLF) membership also includes New Brunswick Power, Hydro-Quebec and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (responsible for the long-term management of all Canadian spent fuel). Just as Canada’s nuclear industry converged on a small modular reactor (SMR) roadmap to capitalise on a common approach to new nuclear technology, the RWLF is committed to a transparent and clear path for decommissioning and waste that fits into Canada’s innovation agenda. As well, through COG’s Strategic R&D programme, the organisations are collaborating on research to reduce dose from decommissioning and waste activities; develop new technology such as automation and robotics and to manage intermediate and low-level waste to reduce volume.

AECL’s president and CEO Richard Sexton is part of the “brain gain” of nuclear scientists and experts Canada has imported. Sexton has spent his career in environmental remediation in the United Kingdom and the USA. He is part of a healthy expatriate community with similar expertise who are currently applying their knowledge in Canada; many at the Chalk River site.

“When I grow up, I want to be in nuclear decommissioning and environmental remediation,” may not be a phrase commonly heard in many households, but Sexton says the careers are intellectually stimulating and rewarding. The same people interested in science and technology jobs – such as the future scientists and nuclear engineers in Harvel’s lab – could find themselves spending several satisfying decades in waste management at home and around the world. For the generation entering the field now, and those whose jobs in operations wrap up when the plants cease production, the end of operations could be the beginning of a burgeoning career.  

NRU: a living lab 

The NRU produced the knowledge required to develop, maintain and evolve Canada’s Candu power stations during 61 years of operation between 1957 and March 2018, when it was placed in a guaranteed safe shutdown. Now, the NRU will serve as a living lab for research while storage activities are under way and planning takes place ahead of the start of decommissioning in 2028. While NRU did not produce electricity, it is Canada’s only major materials and fuel testing reactor used to support and advance the Candu design.  

Above image: Nuclear Research Universal (NRU) employees on the reactor floor in 2018