Reading Catherine Porter’s thoughtful column today on nuclear risk, I was reminded an interesting things I learned reading a review of a book I co-authored on the history of Ontario Hydro.
The review, by the avowedly pro-nuclear Hydro insider Andy Frame and published in the November 2004 Literary Review of Canada, noted that our “contention ‘that Unit 2 at the Bruce A station was shut down because someone left a lead blanket in the reactor, and the contamination was beyond repair’ is true. To my knowledge, this fact has never been publicly reported. Hydro guarded the information, because it revealed how human error could be such a major factor in nuclear plant operation.”
My co-author Jamie Swift and I had dug that little incident up while doing the research, but I confess that I hadn’t realized it had never been publicly reported before. More surprising (or at least refreshing) was Frame’s honesty with respect to the motive for guarding the information (and to be fair, Frame argues that the risks of nuclear power are real, but worth taking).
Flash forward to 2011. That reactor is still off-line, and the massive refurbishment effort for units 1 and 2 at Bruce A (proudly proclaimed as the largest industrial project in Canada) is now late and at least $2 billion over its $2.75 billion budget.
Leaving that blanket was a small mistake, but it has cost a lot. And it reminds us that no technology can be 100% proof against human error.
This is worth keeping in mind when assessing the assurances from the Canadian nuclear industry today that we have had 30 years of problem-free performance. To accept this claim, we would have to forget why the Harris government (with current Conservative leader Tim Hudak at the cabinet table) closed seven additional reactors in 1998 (Ontario has a total of 20 reactors at 3 stations).
The Harris government closed those reactors in response to an Ontario Hydro- commissioned review of its nuclear stations. This review concluded that: “Non-performance is accepted or even expected because senior management has neither set nor enforced standards..... As a result few employees display all of the behaviours required to ensure that station operations remain within safety limits.”
Those reactors were supposed to be closed for a brief period while management got the situation under control. Half of them are still closed today.