Achieving the CANDU promise

9 January 2018

As CANDU operators create their own version of the US industry’s Nuclear Promise, they are finding innovations in technology, culture and collaboration are the go-to elements in the quest for greater efficiency and even some new value propositions beyond generation. Jacquie Hoornweg reports

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) president and CEO Jeff Lyash is standing in front of about 50 industry leaders at the CANDU Owners Group (COG) general business meeting. It is a quarterly forum for exchanging operating experience and sharing initiatives and industry trends across the CANDU fleet. Lyash is animated as he recalls a recent experience with an immersive virtual-reality (VR) software the company is developing to qualify staff in radiological safety.

Sensory data communicated through a headset transports users to replicas of spaces inside the plant. In this case, it is
an area where workers undertake activities to move between radiological zones. Lyash briefly explains the testing scenario he went through then concludes, “When I was done, I set the paddle down on the table.” The only problem – the table was virtual and the paddle, which represented the pancake monitor used to check objects for radiation, had landed on the floor.

Leveraging technology

Lyash’s story illustrates how far computer technology has progressed. Use of the VR simulation will change how OPG conducts its qualifications and other training, too, says Lyash. He is enthused by the technology and the results: more effective and efficient training. For example, the software will notice nuances a human tester would not in the user’s technique and can correct more precisely.

The use of software also means the human trainers can be deployed elsewhere, where their skills are more needed.

It is not hyperbole to say artificial intelligence (AI), along with the associated VR and augmented reality (AR) are creating a paradigm shift in the nuclear business model. Activities run the gamut from inspections, to onboarding of new employees, to tool testing and skill practice, to identification and diagnosis of long-term equipment behaviour and human performance trends.

AI is being used to keep employees safer. For example a recent ‘Google glasses’ application developed at OPG gives workers an instant visual of dose changes, rather than relying on vibrations from the dosimeter on their body. 

Lyash’s talk also illustrated OPG’s own recent use of technology as a way to address the company’s cost curves and its need for human resource as it wrestles with the complexity of operating Darlington, a four-unit station, while simultaneously tackling unit-by-unit refurbishments there.

Some strategically-dispatched AI could prove to be timely for OPG as it prepares for staff reductions and revenue losses that will come at the end of operation of its six-unit Pickering station in 2024. Innovation is already helping Pickering achieve some of its best-ever performance as it continues in its fourth decade of operation. Innovation must help the company during the plant decommissioning and as it looks for new business opportunities to replace it.

A few hours west of OPG’s stations is the 8x800MW Bruce plant, the world’s largest operating nuclear complex.

On most days, the two companies’ nuclear plants combined provide more than 60% of the power used by Ontario and the 14-million people who live and work there. That is a hefty part of the Ontario government’s plan to use a low-carbon electricity mix in future infrastructure. Hydro, renewables and some gas round out the low-carbon generation.

In 2016, Bruce Power began its own life extension programme, a continuous optimisation and asset management programme to take place over several decades. Starting in 2020, that will include major component replacement projects that will take place until 2033. 

Bruce Power president and CEO Mike Rencheck is investing in technology to achieve this. “Cars can drive themselves,” he points out. “Why are we still manually typing in condition reports and going to computers to research old documents?” With artificial intelligence, the information should bring itself forward at the work face, he says. In fact, it is already in the works.

One of many Bruce Power technology investments has been BRIMS, the Bruce Reactor Inspection and Maintenance System, a remotely-operated machine made in Ontario for maintenance and inspection activities at Bruce. The machine gives the operator better knowledge of the condition of the reactor fuel channels and significantly reduces the time required to perform inspections. It also reduces the need for workers to be active in high-radiation areas.

The advanced inspection capability the BRIMS machine offers, along with other innovations, has helped Bruce Power add more than 27 years of reactor operating life to the plant, Rencheck says. That optimisation is reducing costs and adding revenue, which means long-term sustainability and higher confidence amongst the company’s shareholders.

Optimisation is part one of the plan, says Rencheck. Part two is asset management. “We’re investing $400 million a year in renewing our plant assets and that will happen every year for the next decade, two decades, three decades into the future. Our first year, in 2016, our projects were implemented on time and on budget and in 2017, our projects were implemented on time and on budget.”

The ‘on-time, on-budget’ message holds true for OPG’s Darlington, which just hit the one-year anniversary on the execution phase of its first unit refurbishment. Rencheck and Lyash both say they see more opportunity to integrate technologies and other innovations, well beyond what is being done now. Their plan to get there includes each other, COG and the other CANDU operators and suppliers.

Leveraging collaboration

Collaboration in the nuclear industry is not new. It has always been the foundation of COG’s programme. Another contributor to the life extension capability at Bruce Power and continued operation at the OPG plants is the COG-facilitated fuel channel life-management programme (see NEI June, p32-33).

Research results and related management plans, (which COG’s international members are also looking to employ) helped achieve regulatory approval for continued operation of the Ontario plants by demonstrating that an appropriate safety margin could be achieved for longer than originally anticipated. The outcome was several additional years of operation, resulting in billions of dollars of added revenue and importantly, continuity for the province’s electricity system. It has also meant significantly-improved flexibility for the two companies as they map out the projects ahead.

While collaboration has always been a guiding principle, what has changed, and what is going to help achieve CANDU’s version of the nuclear promise, is the level of sharing and the integration between Canadian organisations.

In Canada, nuclear generators are either government-owned or have long-term contracts, allowing for open collaboration where the operators can leverage each other’s work.

“Among the three main operators in Canada (the other being New Brunswick Power) a common approach to training qualifications, a common approach to engineering, shared experience on asset management and operations and outage execution,” provide across-the-board benefits, says Lyash. “If we jointly develop tooling and technical advantages, all Canadians benefit because these companies are not in competition.”

Rencheck says the Canadian operators also owe much to their CANDU counterparts at Embalse in Argentina. That plant’s refurbishment is a few steps ahead of the work at Darlington and has provided valuable experience for the Canadian operators. Embalse has benefitted too. It used new calandria tools developed at OPG for its own refurbishment, while providing a live testing ground for OPG.

New Brunswick Power, now a few years beyond its own refurbishment, has documented its experience and is preparing its Ontario counterparts for what lies ahead. NB Power’s innovations in asset management have included a recent EPRI technology transfer award for a heat exchanger initiative.

International CANDU collaboration brings tremendous benefits to all of COG’s members, says Fred Dermarkar, the organisation’s president and CEO. COG membership includes all CANDU and PHWR technology operators worldwide. The private, not-for-profit organisation invests approximately $65-million in R&D and joint projects annually on behalf of its members.

“The research advances the technology – safety, reliability and environmental and cost performance – for everyone, at a fraction of the cost a company would spend if it undertook the effort independently,” says Dermarkar. “Yet, each operator gains the full benefit.”

Additionally, shared services allow the entire fleet of CANDU operators to leverage the resources of plants worldwide. For example, in 2016, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power saved tens of millions of dollars with just three quick-saves, using COG’s spare parts programme to find urgently-needed parts and avert lost production time.

Paul Thompson, senior strategic advisor to the chief nuclear officer at NB Power says COG initiatives can be especially valuable to a single-unit or smaller operator. Identifying common solutions and implementing these initiatives across many plants not only eliminates wasted duplication; it saves money and opens up more solution options. 

A common supply chain approach

Canada has been fortunate to maintain an intact supply chain – particularly fortuitous given the combination of massive project work and a far more supplier-oriented business model than any time in the country’s history.

As suppliers became key partners, integral to operating and project success, so too has the need to ensure they have as much line of sight on nuclear safety and effective operation as plant employees. Suppliers, and their employees, are not rooted to a single plant. Previously, every time they moved from one job to another, they had to relearn expectations and processes. But that is changing, Rencheck says.

“Common engineering procedures, entry training, security screening – these mean contractors can have single processes. It’s more efficient and now we can focus on working to create new ideas instead of focusing on how to do work. We are able to bring ideas to fruition to get results.”

COG ramped up its supplier participant programme to ensure suppliers have a forum to connect with the operators regularly, in an open exchange about expectations and to further develop knowledge and shared operating experience in the supply community. COG, in turn, is collaborating with the Organisation of Canadian Nuclear Industries to ensure learnings make their way through the entire supply chain.

Value beyond generation

Cost is only part of the calculation in a company’s bottom line. As they develop technologies, OPG and Bruce Power are finding spin-off uses and going beyond electricity generation to maximise the value from their assets.

OPG’s Pickering and Bruce Power supply cobalt-60 to Nordion, a global health science organisation. Cobalt-60 is used to sterilise medical devices and supplies as well as for decontamination of spices and consumer goods. Bruce Power has also recently announced a partnership with Nordion to provide medical-grade cobalt, a critical and unique component of radiotherapy in cancer treatment. The agreement filled an urgent need for the sustainability of supply. Beyond generating electricity, ultimately, the business is about generating value.

What do the operators see with the fulfillment of CANDU’s promise? Decades more generation for the current plants as
a start. And within the industry there is a growing hope that new build, perhaps in the form of small modular reactors, might be the future reward for strong performance.

For the CANDU industry, life has never been so challenging, but it also has not often been quite so exciting either. 

CANDU Adding value: Harvesting cobalt is one way CANDU operators are finding added value from their generation assets. (Photo credit: Bruce Power)
CANDU Bruce Power’s BRIMS machine provides high-quality inspections that have helped increase productivity while reducing worker dose. (Photo credit: Bruce Power)
CANDU Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation President and CEOs Mike Rencheck and Jeff Lyash have delivered a common message to the Canadian nuclear industry: “We are in this together”. (Photo credit: Ontario Power Generation)
CANDU The OPG Xlab team has led development of a number of innovations from 3D printing to virtual reality training

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