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EDUCATION AND GOVERNMENT POLICY:
Today in North America there is a dual problem of scientific illiteracy at the executive level and tolerance of corruption. This problem manifests itself at senior levels of government related agencies, including both OPG and the NWMO. This problem is literally threatening the future of human life on this planet. The problem arises from a combination of factors:
1) There has been a public push for more inclusive representation of both women and visible minorities at the executive level of such agencies. However, the tradeoff has been that technical expertise and depth of relevant experience are no longer the main criteria for promotion. In some areas of human endeavor the technical requirements of a job are not so complex as to prevent a reasonably intelligent individual learning them in a short time. However, the nuclear industry has been and will remain one of the most technically complex of all human endeavors. Once the realm of fast neutron reactions and supporting radio chemistry is entered there is no substitute for at least ten years of relevant formal post secondary education and another ten years of relevant work experience. Our society does not let unqualified persons conduct human heart transplants, yet our society promotes into positions of authority over nuclear matters, on which everyone depends for continuing life, persons who could not pass sophomore exams in math, physics and chemistry.
2) The criteria for promotion in large quasi governmental energy related organizations has increasingly become legal and political expertise rather than scientific and engineering expertise. In the past successful organizations mitigated this problem via executive humility. That is, if an executive knew that he/she lacked sufficient knowledge about something to make an informed decision that executive would seek expertise from another suitably trained person.
3) However, a major problem arises when the executive's technical knowledge is so shallow or non-existent that he/she does not know to seek help, or worse, the person upon whom the executive relies does not realize his/her own lack of relevant knowledge. That exact situation arose in the Joint Review Panel hearings where an “expert” speaking on behalf of the NWMO knew absolutely nothing about the subject on which he was advising the Joint Review Panel. Worse, he did not even know that he did not know.
4) Generally everyone relies on their education and personal experience to assess whether or not they need to seek further expertise. Hence the potential consequences of shortcomings in their core curriculum education are serious. Installing a CEO or CFO at OPG or the NWMO who lacks deep technical expertise and wide engineering experience is fraught with danger. The danger becomes reality as OPG and the NWMO face the prospect of having to deal with a different and more complex nuclear reactor technology.
5) Frequently knowledge of the range of possible complications related to execution of a particular task in varying circumstances is held by technically specialized personnel. If the route to executive promotion does not include appropriate experience across the range of technical specialties, and if there is insufficient executive humility, many possible disasters can ensue. Once a senior executive is actively pursuing a wrong course it is often culturally very difficult for that executive to change direction. The entire OPG / NWMO plan for nuclear waste disposal is a case study in these management issues.
6) The NWMO has been led to its present situation by a federal government which believes that policy devised by scientifically illiterate persons should direct science rather than that science should inform government policy. In this environment it is difficult for an executive, who lacks a rigorous science education, to make a science based decision that involves a major change in organizational direction. This is exactly the problem that today faces both the NWMO and OPG. This problem of management by the uninformed persons is further complicated by faulty directives from both the federal and provincial governments.
7) This situation is but a symptom of a more general problem in Canada that the physical sciences are elective rather than compulsory subjects at the high school and introductory university levels. The result has been a series of elected governments composed of scientific illiterates. These governments only survive because many voters do not have enough science education to make rational fact based decisions with respect to energy matters.
8) A related cultural problem is a belief amongst politicians that persons with extensive nuclear engineering skills do not need to be well paid. The reality is that an uncompetitive salary grid at AECL for over 40 years has led to the best science and engineering graduates seeking work in other fields. This problem has been aggravated by concentration of Canadian nuclear experimental work at Chalk River. The reality is that Chalk River and its related bedroom community of Deep River are very lonely places for single adults. This issue has multiplied AECL's human resources problems. In this author's view, if society expects nuclear workers to have the intelligence, education and job commitment of a specialist medical doctor, these workers must be paid accordingly. There is a history of Canadian politicians "saving money" by restricting the salary grid of AECL nuclear workers. In the short term these workers have little job mobility. However, in the long term the better workers leave AECL to take better paying positions elsewhere and brilliant new science and engineering graduates do not enter the nuclear field. An insufficiency of highly skilled personnel in the nuclear field to deal with the technical complications of fast neutron breeder reactors and fusion power systems may lead to human extinction via thermal runaway.
9) A major problem is insufficient funding for physics/nuclear engineering graduate students. The concept of these graduate students financing their education with student debt is simply unworkable. That concept implicitly assumes a liquid market for highly specialized advanced physics/engineering skills that simply does not exist in Canadian industry. If Canada is to turn out the physics/engineering graduates necessary to support the nuclear industry it is essential that in graduate school these students be paid enough for teaching one course per semester that they can both pay their tuition expenses and live modestly. Otherwise spending 6 years in graduate school is simply unviable and persons with the knowledge in depth required to lead a technical development team in the nuclear industry are not produced by the education system.
My father once made a profound statement. He said: "If you want to understand the energy industry in this country think about the profits that the fossil fuel producers do not make when a nuclear power plant is built."
From that perspective it is easy to understand the motive of fossil fuel suppliers in making financial contributions to anti-nuclear groups, in propagating mistruths about the extent of global warming, in their false claims about the "cleanliness" of natural gas, and in distorting the risks and hazards of nuclear power as compared to other electricity generation methodologies.
The fossil fuel producers are now in the same position as were tobacco producers 50 years ago. They know that their product will eventually kill its users, so they attempt to create user dependency.
Fossil fuel producers also distribute biased pseudo-educational material.
As a result of the misinformation campaigns, there is no public recognition that in spite of a few well publicized incidents, production of a kWh of electricity from nuclear energy is far less dangerous than production of a kWh of electricity by any other means.
There are three critical subjects that are completely missing from the public education curriculum.
1) Thermal Runaway and the PETM evidence pointing towards it as an immediate threat to all humanity;
2) Fast neutron reactors. As far as most North American physics/engineering textbooks are concerned, fast neutron reactors do not exist;
3) Alternative methods of nuclear waste disposal. As far as most school curricula are concerned there is no alternative to DGRs as a means of high level nuclear waste disposal. There is also no mention of nuclear reactor material recycling;
4) The NWMO has claimed that Canadians are in favor of DGRs. That claim is baseless because the persons responding to NWMO surveys had zero knowledge about alternative nuclear waste disposal methodologies.
These education gaps are perpetuated by misinformation campaigns from the fossil fuel industry. In Canada the education gaps are so bad that they extend into the highest political offices. These education gaps create a climate of fear and apprehension around almost anything related to nuclear power. There is no public appreciation of the reality that continuance of human life on this planet is dependent on immediate wide spread acceptance of nuclear power.
IRRESPONSIBILITY AND JUSTIFIED FEARS:
There have been a number of incidents of atmospheric and in-ground releases of radio isotopes from nuclear reactor facilities. A small fraction of these releases have been inert gases that are extremely difficult to contain. Much more serious are preventable radio activity releases that occur because someone in the overseeing political structure failed to approve an important safety related financial expenditure in a timely manner. In matters of lifesafety there is an engineering rule of thumb which states:
"Do it right the first time. It is always the cheapest way."
Nowhere is this rule more evident than in applications such as pipelines and nuclear reactors where failure to provide sufficient material thickness safety margins to allow for corrosion, erosion and fretting leads to a major costs such as complete pipeline or reactor replacement together with loss of income during the shutdown period.
The failure of regulatory bodies such as the CNSC and NEB to force nuclear power plant owners and pipeline owners to spend extra money on creating improved design safety margins has created a climate of public mistrust in Canada that will not soon be remedied.
This safety margin issue is critical in matters that can affect potable water. If an event occurs that introduces toxins into ground water, the value of properties within a several km radius may over night change from many millions of dollars to zero. Generally the exact geometry of ground water aquifers is poorly understood. Rural property owners are familiar with this problem and they are hypersensitive about any activity that threatens the purity of potable water drawn from their drilled wells or the purity of food stuffs grown on their property.
For OPG to make a DGR proposal for nuclear waste disposal in a manner that has even a remote chance of eventually polluting local ground water is the height of stupidity. OPG has compounded this public non-confidence issue by proposing a inaccessible unlined DGR without monitored nuclear waste containers such that there is no warning of a developing radio activity leak threat and if there is a leak there is nothing practical that can be done to mitigate the damage.
Suppose that you lived 300+ years in the future and you and/or your community relied on a drilled well for potable water, as is the case in most of Ontario. In addition to ongoing testing of the well for biological contamination it would be necessary to periodically test the well for radio isotope contamination. If your well is contaminated with radio isotopes, what can you do about it? Abandon your property? Abandon a whole town? Distil all cooking and drinking water? What an awful legacy for us to to hand to our descendants when we have perfectly viable alternatives.
The OPG DGR proposal appears to be the work of executives with short time horizons who live in a major metropolis and who take potable water for granted. If these same executives owned farm property adjacent to the proposed Bruce DGR site and relied on water drawn from drilled wells adjacent to the proposed Bruce DGR site, they would have a different perspective. Such property owners justifiably want the nuclear waste stored in sealed containers, the container seals monitored far into the future and the DGR to be accessible for remedial action if and when a container leak is threatened. From their perspective the concept of "bury the waste and forget it" currently being promoted by both OPG and the NWMO is simply unacceptable.
OPG and the NWMO have justifiable fears about creating a responsibility for waste monitoring and remedial action that may extend far into the future. The solution to this long term problem is simple. The waste must be processed to reduce its individual component half lives to less than 100 years so that within 1000 years the waste's energy emissions will naturally decay over 1000 fold. Simultaneously the waste toxicity can often be reduced by a further factor of 20 by fissioning alpha particle emitters. Isotopes that are not amenable to this treatment process have to be literally isolated for one million years. The nuclear industry must recognize that there is no avoiding this waste treatment and storage. The full cost of this waste treatment and storage must be recovered from electricity revenue and from sale of recycled reactor material. Nuclear reactors must be designed to avoid production of low atomic weight isotopes with long half lives.
If this waste treatment and storage is carried out in a sensible manner the costs are acceptable and are likely substantially less than the costs of creating the numerous low, wet and inaccessible DGRs required by the current OPG and NWMO methodology.
GOVERNMENT AGENCY DENIAL:
The waste treatment process is not constrained by technical complexity. Various technical solutions have been known for 30 to 50 years.
The problem is one of government agency denial that solutions to these nuclear waste processing probems exist. This denial is rooted in existing government policy rather than in science. This policy problem within the Canadian federal government goes back to approximately 1966-1967 when Ministers of the Crown over ruled AECL engineers and then blamed AECL for the resulting financial debacles.
The problems of government interference in AECL have continued from 1966 up to and including the present time. Nuclear energy is a long term investment and short term financial decisions by governments which have the practical effect of strangling AECL are not helpful.
There must be public recognition that obtaining deep competence in nuclear energy related matters typically requires 10 years of formal university education and another 10 plus years of relevant work experience. Such a person also needs basic management skills. It takes many millions of public dollars to train a competent nuclear physicist-chemist-engineer. That entire investment goes to waste in a few months if a government thinks its going to save a few dollars by trimming an AECL budget. Failure to provide adequate compensation to key personnel is a recipe for disaster in terms of recovering value for taxpayers.
During the 1960s and again in the 1990s the AECL budget was reduced to the point that AECL could not pay its key technical employees at a level commensurate with their specialized education and skills. The result was that many key employees left AECL and AECL became an unmanagable sinkhole for taxpayers money.
A comparable non-nuclear example of the effects of misplaced government cost cutting is that in the 1990s the Ontario NDP provincial government thought that it would save money by restricting the number of positions in Ontario medical schools. The consequences of that decison in terms of medical doctor shortages in rural Ontario are still being felt to this day.
There is no inexpensive solution to the problem of adequate compensation for sufficiently skilled people. The practical solution to nuclear power financing is imposition of a substantial fossil carbon tax, which elected governments have thus far been unwilling to do.
A human resources problem that must be faced is that operation of the envisaged nuclear waste disposal program requires multiple individuals with the widest possible education in the physical sciences and engineering as well as some management capability. As much as money these persons also need personal esteem and an adequate social climate.
The issue that ultimately led to the collapse of AECL was a salary grid that made retention of highly qualified and skilled employees impossible. These people cannot be compared to other federal civil servants. In practical implementation of a sophisticated nuclear waste disposal program, it is essential to have the complex science aspects of the program managed by the most qualified individuals available. A good guideline for these individual's compensation is the compensation paid to medical specialists with comparable training and experience.
A further source of problems at AECL has been the relative social isolation at Deep River - Chalk River. In the words of a former senior Ontario Hydro nuclear employee: "I never felt so lonely as during my training period at Chalk River." The problem is even deeper because I knew another person who committed suicide at Deep River under similar circumstances. There needs to be someone at Deep River - Chalk River with the specific full time job of social welfare and organizing social activites for unmarried adults. Frequently persons with high levels of technical education do not have strong social skills. These people represent a huge investment of taxpayer-ratepayer funds and need to be cared for to an extent commensurate with their value.
If the DGR is at a remote location provision of organized recreation and social interaction for adults is almost as important as money.
The viable nuclear waste processing solutions involve leading edge techniques in physics and chemistry that may not be understood by government regulators. There is no substitute for government agency personnel having the humility to admit that they do not fully understand something and seeking the relevant knowledge. If you do not understand something, go back to university. That is what our institutions of higher learning are for. If you present yourself as an expert advising on matters of public policy, there is no excuse for you not having deep knowledge about the various technically viable alternatives. That is especially true when those alternatives were developed in Canada 50 years ago.
In October 2010 the Canadian mining industry freely offered relevant expertise and potential DGR locations to the NWMO. That offer was rejected out of hand by NWMO personnel who knew so little about relevant technical matters that they did not even know their own lack of knowledge. I frankly do not know how to repair this situation other than by sweeping personnel changes at the NWMO.
I have set out below three educational stories which illustrate the problems that occur when key matters of science are dropped from the education core curriculum.
Commencing in approximately the academic year 1969-1970 the use of digital computers was introduced into undergraduate engineering programs across North America. At that time there was discussion as to whether to expand an ordinary undergraduate engineering degree from four years to five years, or whether to discard a number of core curriculum subjects to make time for digital computing. For better or for worse the decision was made to delete certain core curriculum subjects. One of those subjects was the physics of thermal radiation. The rational for deleting it was that few engineers in professional practice actually have to solve thermal radiation problems.
However, the means by which the Earth cools itself is a highly complex thermal radiation problem. Today almost the entire senior executive group at OPG, NWMO, IESO and HONI have the common educational deficiency that they do not understand the physics of global warming sufficiently to make quantitative rational executive decisions with respect to appropriate remedial action. I make this statement with certainty because in 1970 I was the relevant course instructor at the University of Toronto. I received instructions that, in spite of professorial objections, the engineering core curriculum simply had to be reduced and the decision had been made to delete thermal radiation and the underlying quantum mechanics. Today the issue of global warming has at its root missing engineering core curriculum knowledge. It is extremely difficult to convince people of something when they believe that they know what they are talking about when in fact they know nothing.
In the early 2000s the CNSC was headed by a woman named Linda Keene. Under her management the CNSC correctly identified that there was a potentially serious safety problem with many existing nuclear reactors. The nature of the problem was that if there was an unplanned event such as an earthquake which caused a simultaneous shutdown of the reactor, its main backup power source and its connection to the electricity grid then the reactor would, after a short delay, destructively overheat. This problem is common to all fission power reactors and occurs because radio active fission products continue to emit decay heat after a reactor shutdown.
As a result of this finding the CNSC required that, as a condition for Canadian nuclear reactor operating license renewal, redundant backup power and/or pumping capacity had to be provided for critical reactor cooling systems. AECL notified the then federal Liberal government of the requirement for funds to implement this upgrade on its NRU reactor at Chalk River. The Liberals refused funding. The minority federal Liberal government was then defeated and replaced by the federal Conservatives. AECL notified the new Conservative government of its need for funds for this purpose and the Conservatives, who also had no technical expertise in their cabinet, and refused funding.
When the NRU reactor license renewal came due the CNSC correctly refused license renewal. However, at that time the NRU reactor was one of only a few sources of the isotope Mo-99 which is widely used as a precursor for many medical diagnostic procedures. The resulting shortage of Mo-99 for medical diagnostic procedures caused a national uproar.
Instead of admitting its technical incompetence the Conservative government fired Linda Keene. Instead of embracing the CNSC for having performed a service essential to world wide nuclear safety the federal Conservative government instilled fear amongst nuclear regulatory personnel. A consequence of that fear was that the safety issue identified by the CNSC received little attention outside of Canada. Eight years later, under precisely the same earthquake initiated circumstances identified by the CNSC, three power reactors at Fukushima Daiichi destructively failed due to insufficient cooling to remove fission product decay heat in adverse circumstances.
The root cause of this problem is LACK OF EXECUTIVE HUMILITY. It is essential that executive decisions be correctly informed by science.
It has become out of fashion for government agency decision makers to make rational decisions based on science. It is almost impossible for an executive, who lacks a rigorous science education, to make a science based decision that requires a significant change in organizational direction. This is exactly the case that we face today with both the NWMO and OPG. The problem is further complicated by faulty executive directions from both the federal and provincial governments.
In 2010 and again in 2013 I approached the NWMO and OPG with a mining industry sponsored plan to change the direction of nuclear waste disposal in Canada at a very modest cost. The plan included an existing high, dry and accessible DGR, political cover and leveraged additional employment in the mining industry. The plan was sponsored by large mining companies and included $70 million in private capital and $67.5 million in OPG/NWMO funds. However, neither the NWMO nor OPG would even discuss the plan. Today the NWMO and OPG could still change direction, but today the cost would be greater. Tomorrow the cost will be greater still. This cost will simply keep escalating until finally the cost is everyone's life.
Fundamentally the NWMO and OPG executives do not understand that the DGRs are but one piece of a much larger and more complex energy map. There is only one forward path that is consistent with continuing human life. If NWMO and OPG executives understood the underlying science they would know the features that the DGRs require and why. The fact that NWMO and OPG have continued to pursue the present DGR proposal indicates that their executives do not understand the underlying science and are unwilling to learn. In these circumstances it appears that the only solution that is consistent with ongoing human life is termination of existing senior OPG and NWMO personnel.
This web page last updated March 6, 2016
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