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Refurb of Darlington’s Unit 2 reactor reaches halfway point

The milestone allows province to stamp approval for refurbishment of Unit 3 to move ahead

The Darlington Nuclear Generating Station recently marked the halfway point of the refurbishment work on its second of four reactors being renovated in order to extend the life of the facility for as long as 30 years. Shown here: the turbine generator system sits disassembled as the components are rebuilt and replaced. (Photos by Joel Wittnebel)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

On time. On budget.

Four words that officials and dignitaries wanted to make very clear during a recent press conference announcing the latest milestone in the refurbishment of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station’s quartet of reactors.

On Feb. 15, speaking to a packed house at Ontario Power Generation’s Nuclear Information Centre in Clarington, OPG president and CEO Jeff Lyash announced that the refurbishment of Unit 2, the second of four nuclear reactors that call Darlington home on the edge of Lake Ontario, had reached the halfway point. Along with that, the progress also allowed the province to give the green light for work to begin on Unit 3, once Unit 2 is complete.

“Darlington is an economic engine for Durham Region, it has been for over 25 years,” Lyash noted while speaking to reporters after the announcement. “It’s an incredibly important part of Ontario’s electricity supply, not just in providing energy, but being the foundation of reliability of the system.”

According to data from the province, since the 1990s, Darlington has been generating about 20 per cent of the province’s electricity.

However, with the facility reaching the mid-point of its operating life, the refurbishment of the four reactors began in October 2016, starting with Unit 2. The intricate process of replacing and repairing parts of the CANDU reactors is expected to last until 2026 as workers will move from Unit 2 to 3, followed by Unit 1 and finally Unit 4. The estimated $12.8 billion project is slated to extend the life of the Darlington plant up to 2055.

“It’s a good news story for the province, it’s a good news story for this region in terms of jobs, in terms of local companies getting involved in this project,” said Granville Anderson, MPP for Durham, who delivered the provincial remarks on behalf of Glenn Thibeault, the Minister of Energy. Thibeault had been scheduled to attend the announcement, but due to thick fog, was unable to fly into Toronto.

“It means jobs, it means strong electricity for the province, clean electricity, GHG (greenhouse gas)-free electricity, for the province, it’s great news and it’s on time and on budget,” Anderson added. The province estimates that approximately 96 per cent of the project budget will go to Ontario-based companies, and the ongoing operation will create about 14,200 jobs annually until 2055.

With that said, the project hasn’t been without its ups and downs.

An employee works inside the command centre responsible for work inside the nuclear reactor.

Last fall it was reported that the budget for a heavy water storage facility, labelled as a crucial factor for the refurbishment, was delayed by almost two and a half years, and was set to cost almost four times the original estimate once complete.

And more recently, workers were kept off the job one day in December after supervisors noticed working habits were getting sloppy, including an incident where a 20-pound bag of metal components was dropped from a scaffolding, narrowly missing a worker.

Despite that, Lyash says the project is moving along “extremely well”.

“Any mega project like this has issues, and the key is to have the right level of oversight, which we have at the project level, at the executive level, our board of directors and the provincial government has an independent consultant who monitors progress, and identifying those issues really early when a problem comes up and getting it fixed very quickly,” he says. “While we’ve had some issues as you’d expect in the project, all of them were the types of things we’d anticipated, we were able to solve them very quickly, and that’s how we keep this running on schedule and on budget.”

The announcement was also a boost for the project’s timeline, as it passes another of the many “off-ramps” created by the province, which could halt the effort if things were starting to slow down or run over-budget.

“That’s not the case, the project is going extremely well, it’s delivering the way we expected it, and so it’s the natural thing to just proceed with Unit 3 and I would expect to repeat this effort for the remaining units,” Lyash says.

Refurbishment efforts for Unit 2, which includes the removal and replacement of 480 fuel channel assemblies and 960 inlet and outlet feeders, is scheduled to wrap up in February of 2020. If all goes to plan, Unit 3 would be removed from service and refurbishment would begin in March 2020.

When questioned by The Oshawa Express regarding the nuclear waste created by Darlington and the refurbishment project, Lyash assured that waste would be stored safely on-site “through the end of its current life.”

With that said, he noted that once plans for a deep geologic repository come to fruition, currently being investigated by OPG, then waste could begin to be shipped and stored at that location.  Currently, OPG has plans for such a facility to be constructed in Kincardine.

“That process is ongoing, with the objective of that organization selecting a site, sometime around 2023 to 2025 and putting that facility into service in the mid-2040s, where it would then be able to receive the waste from Darlington (and) Pickering,” Lyash says.

However, this is something that has drawn the ire of Durham Region, who shared their concerns with the government this past summer in comments on the Environmental and Regulatory Reviews discussion paper.

Their comments noted a disdain toward the fact that waste currently stored at the Pickering facility “will likely still be there” in 2070.

“This is a disappointing outcome for communities that strongly supported nuclear energy and willingly hosted the reactors for decades. Allowing proponents to say in an Environmental Impact Statement that waste will be sent to a future facility being planned by another organization is no longer acceptable,” the document reads, providing strong words for any future applications for nuclear facilities in other locations.

“We therefore recommend that the federal environmental assessment process include a clear definition and time limit for ‘interim nuclear waste storage’ at the generating stations so that this impact is completely clear to potential host communities. Approval of a nuclear project should require a proponent to have a nuclear waste disposal solution available before the new/refurbished nuclear reactors are permitted to operate.”

With that noted, Regional Chair Roger Anderson provided his support for the refurbishment project in a press package provided by the province.

“Durham Region is Ontario’s energy capital and today’s announcement is great news for the nearly 100 local companies that are part of the nuclear supply chain, and their employees. It means skilled jobs, it means a strong local economy and it means stable electricity supply,” he states.