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Staff shortage at nuclear station concerns regulator Add to ...

ENVIRONMENT REPORTER

The Pickering nuclear power station may not have enough experienced staff on hand to deal with serious accidents or emergencies affecting more than one of its aging reactors, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says.

Officials at the commission - the federal nuclear watchdog - made the assessment in their annual report on the performance of Canada's atomic power stations.

In the document, which will be presented at a commission hearing next week, the CNSC took the unusual step of chastising the owner of the Pickering facility, Ontario Power Generation, over the staffing issue, saying the company's responses didn't comply with regulatory guidance documents.

Although the watchdog said all seven of the country's nuclear power stations - located in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick - were run safely last year and didn't have any abnormal radioactive releases, it was critical of some aspects of the operations in Pickering, where there are two interconnected generating plants known as A and B.

Pickering has Canada's oldest power reactors, and the report suggests they are showing their age, with the extent of outages due to equipment malfunctions and other problems at levels almost unheard of in the nuclear industry.

The two plants, located in a suburban area along Lake Ontario on the outskirts of Toronto, lost about a quarter of their output last year due to unplanned shutdowns, compared to figures of around 1 per cent at the province's three other nuclear power stations, according to the CNSC report.



The output losses place the Pickering plants among the worst in the world by this performance measure, according to Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a Greenpeace spokesman. He said the CNSC is highlighting the fact that to maintain the aging stations is "going to require more and more staff."

Ontario Power Generation spokesman Ted Gruetzner said the CNSC report is part of a normal review to see if there are ways of improving the operation of the station. The report found "the plants all operated safely ... that's the key part," he said.

At the station, OPG is always supposed to have enough workers on site to handle a serious problem at one reactor. But there are a total of six operating reactors there, and the CNSC worries that the staff complement isn't large enough to deal with station-wide difficulties. Such problems occurred in 2003 and 2004, due to algae blooms clogging water intake pipes and an electrical problem undermining power supplies.

"CNSC staff expressed concerns that staffing levels for an event on a single unit might not be adequate" if there is a fire, earthquake or other station-wide condition, the report said.

The nuclear regulator said it "formally requested" that OPG review its minimum staffing requirement in 2004, and added that the company has "not addressed this issue ... to the satisfaction of CNSC staff."

The CNSC also said the company's response to its concerns didn't meet regulatory standards. "The work presented by OPG in 2008 did not demonstrate compliance with regulatory guidance documents" stipulating required minimum staff levels and other human resources requirements, it said.

The CNSC has a policy of refusing to comment on its reports until they are presented at a public hearing.

Mr. Gruetzner said the utility has recently submitted a revised staff plan to the regulator, which is "satisfied with our progress." The Pickering station, he said, complied with federal licence provisions stipulating the minimum number of trained staff on hand at the start of every work shift. He characterized the discussions with the CNSC on staff numbers needed for large-scale emergencies as dealing with a system that "is good, but how do we make the system better?"

In recent years, the Pickering station has been plagued by emergency shutdowns - known in the industry as forced outages - due to equipment malfunctions and other problems.

The report said the two reactors at Pickering A had 10 of these unscheduled shutdowns last year, while the four reactors at Pickering B had eight, contributing to the lengthy periods the stations were out of service.

The poor performance comes as OPG and the Ontario government are mulling over the difficult decision of whether to refurbish Pickering B. In 2005, the province decided not to refurbish two reactors at Pickering A, the older of the two plants, after the overhaul of the first two reactors there experienced major cost overruns and delays.

*****

Down time

Percentage of electrical output lost due to unplanned circumstances, 2008

CANADA

Bruce A 1.2

Bruce B 1.2

Pickering A 27.7

Pickering B 24.1

Darlington 1.3

Gentilly-2 12.7

Point Lepreau 0

INTERNATIONAL

France 7.7

Germany 6.1

Japan 8.4

Switzerland 0.4

Ukraine 1.5

Britain 23.1

U.S. 1.4

international figures are for 2007

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