Nuclear summer

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As a science writer, I’ve written about a lot of things I’ve never expected to see up close. The outer planets of the solar system, for example. The bottom of the ocean.

Nuclear reactors.

I still haven’t reached Neptune, and I’ve never been to the bottom of the sea, unless you count the Captain Nemo ride at Disneyland. But as of this summer, I can say I’ve been inside a reactor.

In August, my wife (an engineer) and I toured the Bruce A Restart Project on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, just north of Kincardine, Ontario, at the Bruce Power nuclear power plant.

There are eight CANDU reactors there, four known as Bruce B and four known as Bruce A. The Bruce A reactors were brought into service in the late 1970s, but were laid up by Ontario Hydro in the mid-to-late ‘90s. In 2001 Bruce Power took over operation of the reactors, and in 2003 and 2004 brought Bruce A Units 3 and 4 back into service.

Now Bruce Power is in the process of bringing Units 1 and 2 into service, refurbishing them so they can operate for an additional 25 years. Once Units 1 and 2 are back in operation, Units 3 and 4 will be shut down for their own refurbishment.

The project involves replacing fuel channels and steam generators and upgrading all the 1970s-era electronics and electrical components to modern standards. It’s the first time anywhere in the world anyone has attempted to completely refurbish a mothballed CANDU reactor. Which means the people at Bruce Power are literally writing the book on how to do it.

So, what’s one of the largest engineering projects Ontario has seen since the plants were first built like, up close and personal?

Well, we covered almost every aspect of it during our three-hour tour (yes, the Gilligan’s Island theme song did run through my head a couple of times). In no particular order, here’s what impressed met.

First…it’s big. It’s really, really big. The reactor is big (though remarkably small when you consider the amount of energy it produces). The building is big. The steam generators are big. The crane being used to lift them in and out through the roof is extremely big. The turbines that spin steam into electricity are big.

For most people, nuclear energy has a high-tech sheen to it. They picture a clean, quiet control room somewhere and people dressed in white lab coats speaking in hushed tones. But in fact, a nuclear-powered generating station is a massive industrial facility, a place of steel and cables and concrete and vents and pipes. Intellectually, I knew that, but it was still eye-opening to see it up close.

A second thing that made an impression: the focus on safety and security. I’ve never gone through a bomb-sniffing machine before, and I’ve certainly never gone through a radiation detector before. I found the steps taken to ensure the safety of workers and the public and the security of the plant comprehensive and reassuring.

Third…well, third, I was impressed by the heat. The vault of the reactor was hot. Not in the sense of being radioactive, I hasten to add. It was thoroughly decontaminated before work began and remaining spots with high radioactivity are monitored and clearly marked. The detectors we wore registered a dose, in the 45 minutes we were in the vault, equivalent to one-10th of a dental X-ray.

No, the vault is simply very, very warm. Especially when you’re wearing three layers of clothes, a hard-hat, goggles, and rubber gloves.

When Units 1 and 2 come back online over the next couple of years, Bruce Power’s eight reactors will produce more than 6,200 megawatts, making it the source of about 25 percent of Ontario’s electricity on a typical day…all produced, emission-free, thanks to the simple fact that when you split an atom of uranium, a small portion of its mass turns into energy.

We’re impressed by the pyramids of Egypt, but really, piling a bunch of rocks on each other is nothing compared to the modern engineering marvels we take for granted every day.

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