Tag Archives: Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission

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Preparing For the Unexpected

Fort McMurray. A city once synonymous with oil is now known for the worst forest fire in Alberta’s history. The massive blaze exploded thanks to hot, dry weather. It has scorched over 200,000 hectares of ground and counting. It will take months before the flames are finally extinguished, and many more before lives can be rebuilt.

Natural threats, like the forest fire in Fort McMurray, are reminders of the challenges that every industry faces and subsequently must address: preparing for severe events that can happen, often with little or no warning.

The nuclear industry is not without its own risks from Mother Nature.  In March 2011 one of the most powerful earthquakes on the planet opened up the sea floor and unleashed a wall of water on the Japanese coast.  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami that were both much larger than its builders had contemplated.  The resulting accident led to a world-wide scrutiny of power reactors for their ability to resist extreme natural events.  The nuclear industry has since instituted what we call “beyond design” safety measures to prepare for events beyond the range used as a basis in the original design process.

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Being prepared for severe weather events requires an enormous undertaking by industry.  Different industries are accountable to different regulatory bodies, organizations that operate at an arm’s length from government and aim to ensure that best practices are followed.

Nuclear reactors at Canadian sites, and the facilities around them, have numerous, layered design features and operating procedures that rendered very, very low risk the possibility of an accident because of extreme weather – such as winter ice storms or high winds.  These features and procedures have worked well for the more than fifty years that the industry has generated electricity for Canadians.  In all this time, we have not had a radiation release that harmed people or the environment.

Should nature get the best of all these technological, engineering, construction and operational defences, we know how to respond quickly in response.  The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC)  requires all nuclear power plant operators to have a fire response team and the regulator mandates that “the licensee also supports provincial and local authorities in their response efforts.”

For example, Cameco Corporation’s emergency response program at its uranium processing facility in Port Hope, Ontario is comprehensive and includes approximately 60 highly trained employees, most of whom have specialized training in industrial firefighting and hazardous materials. As has been seen in Alberta, a coordinated response to a natural disaster is important. Cameco covers the cost of hazardous material training for all members of the Port Hope fire and emergency services department, which would support the efforts of Cameco’s emergency response team in the event of a natural disaster.

Post Fukushima, reactor operator Bruce Power, which boasts a team of 400 highly trained emergency personnel, worked with other industry experts to develop state of the art fire trucks which included doubling the water capability, night-scan lights and LED technology. In addition to the new fire trucks, the company also purchased portable back-up generators and invested in specific post-Fukushima training. Throughout the nuclear industry and supply chain, organizations realize the importance of investing to prepare for the unexpected.  That is the best and prudent way to minimizing the impacts that severe weather can have on people, the environment and industry.

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Radiopharmaceuticals and Disease Diagnosis

Nuclear medicine, already well-established in cancer diagnostics and treatment, has started to play a role in other diseases, like Alzheimer’s.

Doctors are using medications that contain radioactive materials so they can get an inside look at how your body operates. Patients receive these radiopharmaceuticals by injection, or by inhaling or swallowing the medication.

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As oncologist Sandy McEwan explains, “It circulates and binds at the site of the target and then we measure the distribution of the injection in space or time to understand what changes or functions are occurring.”

Dr. McEwan is a professor and chair of the department of oncology at the University of Alberta’s Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. He is also a member of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the independent nuclear regulator.

Dr. McEwan says advances in nuclear medicine are growing thanks to strong and active research and development.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the use of radiopharmaceuticals to help evaluate patients for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Advances are also being made in other areas such as cancer behaviours, according to Dr. McEwan.

“Tumors tend to use more glucose or sugar than regular cells,” Dr. McEwan says. “Using radiopharmaceuticals, doctors can measure how much glucose is being used by a tumor. The more sugar used by the cancerous cell, the worse the tumor is.”

These new medicines aren’t just used for diagnoses. Their very nature allows doctors to tailor them to individual patients.

“It’s personalized medicine,” says Dr. McEwan. “The right dose of the right drug, at the right time, for the right patient.”

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Nuclear Power Plants Safe from Terrorist Attacks

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

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Since 2001, much of the Western world has been living with what’s been called the “New Normal,” which came in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks.

Increased security at airports, borders and major public events is part of this new way of life.

Being part of critical infrastructure, the nuclear power industry is often cited in media stories as a potential terrorist target.

Shortly after 9/11, there was much media speculation, especially in the U.S., about the possibility of terrorists hijacking a commercial airliner and flying it into a nuclear reactor causing a meltdown.

In 2002, the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute released a study that concluded, “The structures that house reactor fuel are robust and protect the fuel from impacts of large commercial aircraft.”

In Canada, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has also examined the issue of an airliner attack on a nuclear plant and concluded that the public would not be at risk to radiation exposure as a result of such an event.

“Robustness design covers the physical design of nuclear facilities for sufficient robustness against anticipated threats, such as protection against a malevolent aircraft crash,” the CNSC said in a 2013 report.

“The assessment and ratings for this specific area are based on licensee performance in meeting the commitments provided to CNSC staff through an exchange of correspondence, including the submission of detailed aircraft impact assessments.  Licensees have demonstrated, through analysis using conservative initial assumptions and significant safety margins, that vital areas and critical SSCs (structures systems and components) are protected to the extent that no offsite consequences are expected for general aviation aircraft impact.”

Even before 9/11, nuclear reactors in the U.S. were designed and built with thick concrete walls to withstand strong earthquakes and hurricane force winds.

In 1989, Sandia National Labs in New Mexico conducted a test that sent a rocket-propelled F-4 fighter jet into a containment wall at 480 miles per hour. The jet exploded but there were less than three inches of penetration of the wall. And there’s video to prove it.

Okay, so a plane cannot penetrate a reactor from the side. But what if it made a precise nose dive into the top of the reactor?

The NEI study examined that scenario. Here’s its conclusion.

“The wing span of the Boeing 767-400 (170 feet) – the aircraft used in the analyses – is slightly longer than the diameter of a typical containment building (140 feet). The aircraft engines are physically separated by approximately 50 feet. This makes it impossible for both an engine and the fuselage to strike the centerline of the containment building,” the NEI study concluded.

“As a result, two analyses were performed. One analysis evaluated the ‘local’ impact of an engine on the structure. The second analysis evaluated the ‘global’ impact from the entire mass of the aircraft on the structure. In both cases, the analysis conservatively assumed that the engine and the fuselage strike perpendicular to the centerline of the structure. This results in the maximum force upon impact to the structure for each case.

“The analyses indicated that no parts of the engine, the fuselage or the wings – nor the jet fuel – entered the containment buildings. The robust containment structure was not breached, although there was some crushing and spalling (chipping of material at the impact point) of the concrete.”

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Uranium Mines and Mills Subject to Strict Regulations

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

A radiation technician
A radiation technician checking to make sure radiation levels are below regulatory limits.

Canada’s uranium mining sector is a heavily regulated industry, monitored closely by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to ensure the safety of workers, the environment, and the public.

Every aspect of uranium mining and milling is subject to licensing from the CNSC to ensure that they are operated in accordance with international standards. According to the CNSC website, “The CNSC’s licensing process for uranium mines and mills follows the stages laid out in the Uranium Mines and Mills Regulations, proceeding progressively through site preparation and construction, operating, decommissioning, and abandonment (or release from licensing) phases.”

Here’s a breakdown of the safety measures at each phase.

Site preparation and construction

Before construction of uranium mining or milling operations, site owners or operators must take samples from the nearby soil, water, air, flora, and fauna to document the state of the environment before mining begins. During construction and operation, the operators continue to take samples regularly and check them against original conditions, to ensure that the environment is being protected.

Results of this monitoring are submitted to federal and provincial regulatory authorities for review. Testing by independent agencies of water bodies downstream from uranium operations in northern Saskatchewan demonstrate that there have been no effects on water quality, while local wild foods, such as moose, fish, and berries, continue to be safe to eat.

Mining and milling operations

All uranium mining and milling operations have formal safety and radiation-protection programs and codes of practice, to ensure that workers and the public are safe. These programs require that radiation protection be considered in the design of all facilities and operating procedures. They also provide for systematic monitoring of radiation in work areas, and track the exposures of individual workers, through a combination of monitoring devices and health testing.

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A field technician collecting a water sample from a lake downstream of a uranium mine.

Rigorous safety practices are not limited to the handling of uranium ore and concentrate. Even waste rock from mining operations, which contains very low concentrations of uranium and other metals, is managed to protect the environment. Waste rock is stored on engineered pads and, where necessary, runoff water is collected and treated to remove contaminants before it is released to the environment. Waste rock management facilities are monitored as part of the extensive environmental monitoring program in place at each operating site, to ensure that any issues are identified and addressed.

Similarly, after milling has removed uranium from ore, what is left is called “tailings”, which also contains low levels of matter that could remain radioactive for long periods. Environmental modelling shows that this matter can be managed and secured safely. In Canada, mill operators place the leftover material in tailings facilities, and cover them with water. The active tailings facilities at all of Canada’s uranium mills are state-of-the-art facilities built into large, mined-out ore pits. While the mill is active, operators collect groundwater from a series of wells around the facility. By the time operations cease, the tailings will have become a solid, dense mass. Groundwater will flow around the consolidated tailings, rather than through them, to minimize environmental impact. The facilities are designed to contain the material securely for thousands of years.

All water used in uranium mining and milling processes is treated to remove contaminants before it is released into the environment.

Transportation

Uranium concentrate is safely transported by road, rail, or sea in conventional shipping containers. Handling precautions applied to other potentially hazardous industrial chemicals are sufficient to protect people and the environment. In the event of an accidental spill, the material would be collected by trained personnel and delivered to a licensed facility for repackaging; there would be no significant effect on people or the environment. The CNSC inspects and reviews the transportation of uranium from mining and milling operations to ensure the safety of workers and the public.

Shutdown and decommissioning

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Trucks hauling uranium ore and waste rock to the surface.

Though decommissioning takes place at the end of the cycle, it is planned and financed from the beginning. “The CNSC requires a licensee to have a financial guarantee in place during all phases of the facility’s lifecycle to cover the cost of decommissioning,” according to the CNSC. “This ensures that decommissioning is included in planning at all stages in a facility’s lifecycle. Decommissioning and reclamation plans for mines and mills must be assessed and approved by the CNSC before work can proceed.”All uranium mining and milling operations must eventually be decommissioned. During this phase, the operators remove all structures, secure and landscape the tailings and waste-rock facilities, fill or flood the open pits, and close the mines, backfilling them with concrete caps. After the physical decommissioning is complete, the sites are subject to an extended monitoring period to ensure that the environment is protected.

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Canadian Nuclear Power Plants Get Top Marks for Safety from CNSC

By Romeo St-Martin
Digital Media Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

OPG, Bruce Power and NB Power all received high marks for their plant safety from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission last week, proving again that nuclear power in Canada is safe.

The CNSC Staff Integrated Safety Assessment of Canadian Nuclear Power Plants for 2013 concluded that Canada’s nuclear power plant operators “made adequate provision for the protection of the health, safety and security of persons and the environment from the use of nuclear energy.”

The report’s highlights included:

  • there were no serious process failures at the nuclear power plants
  • no member of the public received a radiation dose that exceeded the regulatory limit
  • no worker at any plant received a radiation dose that exceeded the regulatory limits
  • the frequency and severity of non-radiological injuries to workers were minimal
  • no radiological releases to the environment from the stations exceeded the regulatory limits

The CNSC rates nuclear power plant safety performance on 14 criteria using a scale of “Fully Satisfactory,” “Satisfactory,” “Below expectations,” and “Unacceptable.”

All nuclear power plants received scores of either “Fully Satisfactory” or “Satisfactory” for all 14 items, including things such as waste, fitness for service and radiation protection.

In addition, OPG’s Darlington was the only station to receive a “Fully Satisfactory” score – the highest score possible – for its overall plant rating.