Can Alberta handle a nuke plant?

A look at what might be involved if the province's first proposed nuclear power plant gets the green light

The announcement of a potential nuclear power plant in the Peace River region raises all sorts of interesting questions for Alberta's construction industry.

This is, after all, fossil fuel country. Our knowledge of nuclear power plants is limited. So what does a nuclear power plant look like? What would be involved in the construction? And are there enough workers to build it? Alberta Construction Magazine set out to get a sense of what industry can expect.

It's too early for details on what Alberta's nuclear plant could look like as the project is still in the discussion and planning phase. Energy Alberta Corp. of Calgary has applied for a licence from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to prepare a site on the bank of Lac Cardinal near Peace River in northwestern Alberta. It's the first step of a long regulatory process involving environmental assessments, health and safety assessments, and public consultations.

Initial plans are to build one twin-unit reactor-the technical name, for those of you who like to keep track of such things, is an ACR-1000 Advanced CANDU Reactor-possibly adding a second later.

If all goes according to plan-and remember, it's still all very iffy-construction would begin in 2012 and continues for at least five years, with the first reactor entering service in 2017.


What's involved?

The project would require between 2,000 and 2,500 construction workers. They would do a bit of everything, from constructing the six-foot-thick, steel-lined concrete building housing the reactor to carving new roads to constructing a switchyard for transmitting energy.

Bruce Power, the Ontario-based nuclear giant interested in buying Energy Alberta and taking over the proposed nuclear project, is now laying the groundwork for a potential new facility at the Bruce Power Plant on the shores of Lake Huron near the town of Kincardine. A peek at the Bruce Power New Build Environmental Assessment for that project gives some idea of what the construction phase of a nuclear plant involves:

  • Construction of a reactor building, turbine hall, pump house, water treatment plant, laboratories and administration, and service and annex buildings.
  • Building a cooling water system consisting of tunnels, piping, and cooling towers.
  • Constructing a switchyard consisting of towers, transmission lines, and associated gear.
  • Building site services such as roads, security systems, and parking lots.
  • Constructing on-site waste management facilities for construction waste.
  • Carrying out various landscaping activities.

Trades typically involved in such project include boilermakers, millwrights, pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, labourers, insulators, ironworkers, heavy equipment operators, and crane operators. Engineers, construction supervisors, and project managers will also be required.


Easier to build new

Bruce Power is two years into a $5.5-billion refurbishment construction project at its Bruce A generating station at the Bruce Power Plant. The Bruce A and Bruce B stations were built in the 1970s. Two decades later, the older facility, Bruce A, was taken out of operation when demand for electricity fell in Ontario.

In 2003-04, Bruce Power upgraded Units 3 and 4 at Bruce A and put them back into service. But Units 1 and 2 were in need of some major work. Bruce Power communications consultant Rob Liddle explains that standards and codes are constantly changing in the nuclear industry.

"When you have an operating nuclear plant, you're constantly improving it as it gets older to stay current with modern standards," he says. "But when one's been shut down for five years, you've got to catch up to five years worth of changes in standards and codes."

There are about 2,500 people involved in the construction project at Bruce A, 1,700 tradespeople and 800 others in roles such as safety technicians and engineers.

It's a complicated endeavour. The plant operated for about 20 years so the reactors are radioactive. Much of the work to dismantle the old reactors inside their containment buildings or vaults must be done with remote-controlled machines before they can be rebuilt with new components.

Specially designed ports were created in the roof of the generating station to allow for the replacement of 16 giant steam generators. The old generators were lifted out and the new ones lifted in using a 1,600-tonne-capacity Mammoet crane shipped from Fort MacKay, Alta.

Adding to the challenges is the fact that the 2,500 people involved in the project are working alongside 3,800 regular employees.

"It may have been easier to build new," says Liddle, "but there are regulatory hurdles. It takes a long, long time to get permission to build a new facility."

The waiting game

The long wait before construction of a plant in Alberta can begin gives communities in the region time to prepare.

"There will be a number of years for us to actually be able to kick in all that's needed to get ourselves ready for this," says Iris Callioux, mayor of Peace River.

Peace River is ahead of the game in terms of infrastructure. The town has made a point of providing amenities such as high-quality schools and leisure facilities and will look at adding more as the population increases.

"We know in this town that you need to have all of the amenities that are available in larger locations or areas simply because people that are looking at going to the north want to make sure that they or their children are not going to be disadvantaged in any way over living in a centre closer to a larger-population area," Callioux explains.

Should the project go ahead, it is likely that experienced companies and their employees would be imported into the province for some of the work. The Bruce A restart project, for example, is managed by Toronto-based AMEC NCL, which specializes in project management and engineering for Canadian nuclear utilities. Other major contractors, such as SNC-Lavalin Nuclear and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., also have a great deal of experience in the nuclear industry.

The influx of people from across the province and beyond that would arrive with the start of construction would bring challenges to local municipalities. Where to put them all is one example.

It's not known whether a camp would be built to house workers or whether more housing will be required. Peace River has already begun looking at annexation to obtain land for developers.

"But this is just an area that's being looked at this point," Callioux says. "We actually have to have the definite say-so from the company."

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