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The World's Largest Nuclear Refurbishment

Jeff Phelps

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today, we're coming to you direct from Bruce Power. And it's pleased to talk about a lot and play some kind of proud of as an Ontarian. And in a nuke bro, I guess it is the world's largest operating nuclear facility. And it plans to stay that way, for quite a long time. And the reason why is because they're involved in refurbishing all of their reactors. And it's a concept that I'm trying to get my head around and understand better. So I decided to come up here and talk with someone who knows what he's talking about. Jeff Phelps, welcome to the show. If you can do on the podcast, we do sort of self introduction. Yep, find that more interesting. So just go ahead, introduce yourself, your background, what you do hobbies, anything interesting, but keep it to like 40 seconds, 40

Jeff Phelps  0:50  

seconds. Okay. Jeff Phelps, VP of major projects at Bruce Power, very lucky and proud and privileged to actually lead the refurbishment of the six remaining units to be refurbished of roospark. We've done two already. So we've actually on our third refurbishment on the site, and we have a 12 year program to refurbish the remaining six units. And we're two and a half years into the first unit, which is unit six. So a couple of things about yourself too, though, okay. Yeah, I'm handsome, good looking tall, dark with my brothers, Michael Phelps really. Originally, originally born in Scotland, I've worked around the UK, France, the states. And now I've been working in Canada since 2003. So I've been lucky enough to be engaged with all of the refurbishments right the way across the site. I'm an engineer by trade. So I'm, I've got a degree in engineering. But I'm also a trades guy, which is unusual. I'm in the UK, I went through mechanical apprenticeship, then I did an electrical training ship. And then I went and did a design degree. So I have a very background and understanding construction, and many aspects of mechanical electrical work. So it gives me a good foundation for something as large as a refurbishment project.

Chris Keefer  1:56  

If you're one of the rare engineers, it's not wearing the ring. Oh, yeah.

Jeff Phelps  1:59  

So in the UK, I'm not allowed to wear a ring in Ontario, unless I go and sit an ethics exam. So don't take this wrong. Wait, that I said, No, no, no. Jesus, if you think I've got to set an ethics exam to wear a ring on my finger, not

Chris Keefer  2:12  

alright. Alright, cool. Let's get down to the meat of this interview. I've been trying to get my head around what exactly refurbishment is. And I've been thinking through a few, I guess, kind of metaphors or analogies. But I think a lot of people they hear you know that the design life of a candy was 30 or 40 years. So what's what's going on? How can a station go? 80 years? Or how far can it go? So how do you how do you explain it, break it down? Simplify it, what analogies do you use to explain what's going on here with the refurbs.

Jeff Phelps  2:45  

I think the analogy really I'd use is always when you look at a car, there's cars on the road today that have been, you know, been safely driven for 50 6070 years. And the way that they they've managed that is they refurbish elements of those cars to get them safer. So they replace the engine, the reactor, then replace that they changed the brakes, they'll change the tires. So you have regular maintenance that we have at a nuclear power station is called asset management. And then you go in once through the lifetime of the moment and replace the critical components. And we call them the large components major component replacement, such things as the steam generators, the reactor, and they are primarily the big pieces of the heart of the of the unit that you need to change to extend the life beyond the the the approved 30 years, 40 years of operation,

Chris Keefer  3:29  

right. And like you come up with, in terms again, of the kind of the reactor internals with something like in a condition that is, as new I've heard people say it's even better than new, because you've learned a bunch of stuff from operations, you might have improved some of the alloys or I'm not sure what we certainly

Jeff Phelps  3:43  

do that. So a lot of the materials that we put in are based on what we've observed through the operating lifecycle of the first 30 years of the unit. So we do we do tweak the design a little bit, but the major components that we do, they're very minor tweaks to it. So it's very similar to a like for like replacement. And that is one of the original strategies where we got a financial approvals to proceed was limited, first of a kind. Because we have a proven technology, it's proven, it's been safe to operate for 30 years. So if you look at it, no difference to a car, you know, you can drive a car for a certain period of time. And you know, you need to do regular maintenance, asset management to that car, do the oil changes, change the tires, wiper blades, etc. But every now and again, if you really want to extend the life of the vehicle, you got to change the brakes, you might have to change the wheel, you got to change the engine. But that's the way the analogy I'll put it for most people to understand is very similar to that.

Chris Keefer  4:34  

I guess the car thing for me, it's like, yeah, but I mean, who wants to? I mean, there are some people that want to drive a classic car, you know, his name is muscle car from the 60s or something. And obviously, I mean, it's just that nuclear reactors are very different than like a consumer, electronic device or vehicle. I think people kind of expect the same sort of like, you know, why are we still driving those old cars. So that's why it doesn't necessarily completely I think there's no perfect analogy.

Jeff Phelps  4:55  

I wouldn't say there's a perfect analogy, but there's an element to it as well, where there's there's the amount of cost comes into that. So the business case to actually refurbish a unit is significantly different to building a new unit. And you would have heard that there are new units being built around the world. And I worked on a unit in the UK for a couple of years as well. There's a lot of properties and development in China. The challenges, they have different different models, right, we have a unit here, we have a great facility, the infrastructure is there, which again, is a huge cost adder. So if you've actually got the infrastructure here, the distribution system, and all you're going to do then is extend the life of the unit, that it's a much more cost enabler to do that, right? is cost prohibitive to knock us down and build a brand new unit?

Chris Keefer  5:39  

Yeah, I mean, I've been looking at this again, as an outsider non engineer. And it's there's some things that seem basic, but that are pretty complicated, like pouring nuclear concrete, getting the rebar just right. And in the AP 1007, Vogel, they kind of messed that up and then had to jackhammer out nuclear concrete and rebar as thick as my wrist and things like that. So I guess that brings us to the next question, which is, you know, how many times can you refurbish What, what's the things that limit ultimately limit the life of a plant like, you know, this plant is going to go to I think, the 2060s 2064,

Jeff Phelps  6:11  

end of the site life current site, like current site, less current site, could you refer again, it would really depend on another lifecycle. So we've never taken a unit through, you know, two life cycles. So what we consistently do is inspect, and that's what our outage program does, we go in, and we expect the components to ensure that they're behaving the way we thought and designed. So we measure that and if we have to tweak as we go, I think the challenge for the, you know, the beyond 60 or 70 years or low for after the refurbishment. So total total lifespan, I think the challenge will be you're looking at technology, which is 60 or 70 years old. And I think the new technology will will be very different in another 30 years of operating life. So I think the plan itself could get there. As long as you maintain it. Well, that's the most important thing is you after the refurbishment is to keep the maintenance up. And again, no difference to a vehicle. If you don't maintain it, it won't run for the projected period of time.

Chris Keefer  7:07  

So a big part of you know, my interest is someone who views nuclear as being like the Keystone technology of our energy transition, the thermal thermodynamically, viable replacement for fossil fuels, I guess it not every capacity, but in many is we need to get a lot of nuclear, we got to we need to refurbish what we have, we need to build new nuclear. And I'm always trying to learn, and I call it the secret sauce. But you know, around the world, there's been these magical decades in multiple countries, almost like a baton being passed, of getting it right, knowing how to do it well getting it done on budget and on time. And so, you know, again, as a humble outsider, some of the patterns that I see, particularly in the west with new build nuclear is we focused on, you know, fancy new designs, first of all kinds with atrophied workforces and atrophied supply chains that are not familiar with the new technology never done it before. And so, you know, my thesis in Canada is that in the West, we're sort of uniquely advantaged you know, once we do these refurbs to build new can do you know, the turnkey technology, we already we have fully licensed with, again, a workforce and supply chain that's ramped up. So we've talked a little bit about, like, how different refurb is from new build, and I'm really asking a pretty loaded question. But does that seem sensible to you? And, you know, we're gonna talk a little bit about, you know, how many how many people are working on site, and just how ramped up what that supply chain looks like. But we're thinking that thesis

Jeff Phelps  8:35  

Yeah, we're extremely lucky and can do extremely lucky. So when you go back to the original design of the plants, 90% of our our equipment to that we need for refurbishment, is it in Ontario, right? So steam generators manufactured just down the road of BW x, t and Cambridge know a lot of our individual components all around the GTA and St. Catharines. area, right. So you know, fuel channels meet, but gee, they're all local in Ontario. So one of the challenges with new build, again, is the supply chain is worldwide. And as COVID has really taught us through work offering a mega project through the pandemic, if you have a supply chain that's local, it is a lot easier to get your plant equipment timely, because some of the bigger projects or look at some of the bigger projects around the world, they've been significantly impacted by supply chain. So we've been extremely lucky that way. And as a refurbishment, and same with new build, the strategies you procure early, you actually have the equipment on site ready to go. And that's what we did here on unit six. And we've done the same for future units. And actually unit B in Unit Three, we're starting to get equipment on site six months ahead of when you actually physically need it. And with the supply chain, some of the materials. What people don't realize is where you have where you've had a load in manufactures such as design and build of a nuclear power station. The supply chain hasn't kept up. They've diversified their own supply chains to go off and build and manufacture other things. So getting that supply chain back engaged where we worked really very well within PG to build the supply chain backup in Ontario. We've done that locally, we've done it with with local resources as much as we can. So that's the difference when people keep saying no, why don't you do new build, and you'll get another project of 40 years, you can get 40 years out of this unit, you have to operate maintain it really well. You have a diverse supply chain local, to supply materials for next 30 or 40 years as well. Right. So you're not impacted by any of those projected impacts from supply chain, which is impacting every project across the planet at the moment.

Chris Keefer  10:33  

So I think, you know, there's a tendency to to maybe fetishize is the wrong word, right. But it's kind of new designs, maybe this is a field that's dominated by engineers, you have problems you want to solve, everyone's kind of just chomping at the bit to, you know, do some new blueprints. But it's something that I've been drawn towards is, again, the importance of the human factors, and those human resources. Right. So I guess from project managers like yourself, down to, you know, the skilled trades involved in building this. That seems like a huge resource. And I want to talk about a little bit of of the, the challenges, right. You know, one of the things that I've heard is that one of the challenges is finding people that have those skills and the numbers we need, like how many, how many people are involved in this refurb, how many people are coming in and off site every day, to get it to get a sense of that.

Jeff Phelps  11:24  

So on the site itself, we have over 7000 people come into site every day. And you can imagine, during the pandemic, we significantly reduced that number on site. So we only maintained at what we call a core competency to run the site safely. And then we had our construction workers. And at that point in time, we had roughly around 600 people on site every day, an hour, I should say, every shift because we actually operate the project 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Okay. So, you know, we had 12 people employed 1200 people employed 600, on day 600 On nights to keep the work maintaining is because obviously, the generation costs are significant. So you want to do the project as safely as you can, in the shortest period. So we see, we've worked really closely with the Ontario building trades to ensure that they understand the resources that were projected to use across the decade of MCR, and across the refurbishment window for Darlington as well. So we meet with the building trades every month to go through that understand what our projections look like, understand what their feed looks like. So we've encouraged them to build their apprenticeship programs to feed this over the period of time that we refurbish. And the influence that we don't have is what goes on around us. And obviously, with the pandemic and projects closing down, we had a we had the resources available, obviously a risk as you identify as the trades now as other projects pick up around the country. And specifically, if you look down south where they're saying some of the infrastructure projects could kick off, we could be skilled, we could be challenged for some of those skilled resources in years to come. The one thing that we do have the lock off here is it's more of a mechanical type work. So it's not civil, a lot of the civil work that the infrastructure is around concrete. We don't do concrete in this refurbishment. It's a lot of mechanical electrical work. So tends to be different skill sets and different traits. But it means that we have to work very closely with the building trades, which you know, we can't do these. We can't do these refurbishment. The building trades is such a key component that we are in lockstep with them every month we meet with them to discuss it.

Chris Keefer  13:21  

Yeah. I mean, I think that that, that point about the supply chain issues, we've seen that with COVID being a major factor, and there's a big benefit, obviously, to to building stuff in our country in our province. Absolutely. I you know, I've heard about the economic multiplier effect. With these refurbishments, you spend $1, you get a buck 40 out. Absolutely. You got skilled laborer making good wages and spending it in their communities. And we, you know, we live in this era of the so called Fire economy, right, like finance, insurance, real estate, right? Where there's not a productive economy, we're not manufacturing things here in our backyard. And so trying to get a sense within the broader Ontario economy. How big of a deal are these refurbishments to maintaining manufacturing, to building stuff here?

Jeff Phelps  14:06  

Yeah, so So really, for us this, the two key areas, which we manufacture locally, are all around those key components are the steam generators, as an example, you got 168 ton cartridges, eight of them per unit for Bruce for each one of the units. So to keep people engaged in Cambridge manufacturing those, we're going to give them at least seven to eight to nine years work. And so BW XT are actually manufacturing steam generators today for Unit Five when we go back in 2027. So you know, all that all that employment is going to be between now and the end of the decade is going to be focused in Ontario, which to me, gives us that bridge to the other things that are going to happen around other projects kicking off other technologies kicking in. There's certainly a diversification from some of those vendors as well into other industries. So they get a core competency in what they do for us, and then they can actually apply that a core competency to other industries as well, and bring that up X and lessons learned to us as well. But there are other technologies out there that do things better than we do. And we're trying to learn that so we can ensure we can do it safer, and again, shorter and cheaper. And that's the goal across the next 12 years, we have to continue to execute safe, that's our primary focus, always, always will talk safety is our primary focus all the time every day. And the reality then is making sure that we can keep as much local as we can. And I will tell you that one thing we've learned in through COVID, is although people can work remotely, we really find and you'll hear this from other companies as well, the dynamics, you need the dynamics of the team, we can't build remotely, we have to build on site, right? So we need to treat local to Ontario, we can't get them from anywhere else. So we know that there's always going to be a requirement for them locally, that thrives in the community, because you know, Buck 40, for every buck that we pay, which is just awesome turnover for the next 10 to 12 years of the community, which again, in the in Ontario, it's critical, I think it's a critical resource that we need.

Chris Keefer  16:04  

You know, I visited the Bruce plant, I think was Bruce say last year, and, you know, looking at the building, looking at the complexity there, you know, I felt like, my generation can't do this anymore. When it you know, we talked about the challenge of just building a bridge or getting anything done. You know, and it's almost like there was a great generation that came before. Just we're just gonna wrap up any minute now. But I wanted to get a sense of, you know, I guess maybe I love getting an on the ground feeling for what happened, we're going to splice in a little bit of B roll here. But I think probably the crane story would be it. But just just to give us a quick little vignette of something big. That's happened on site.

Jeff Phelps  16:41  

So when you, when you get the pitches, you'll see that the crane that we use is it doesn't matter, of course, PTC 35, but it's an 1800 ton crane to lift distinct generator, which is shaped something very similar to this. And the distinct generator itself about 168 tons. And it's not necessarily for the for the crane companies and the people that work this, that's quite a small lift. But for a Nuclear Generating Station where we lift 168 times, we traverse it out of the reactor building and into a safe cradle. But that's a significant evolution. And to see it happen, I'd be very lucky to have done it on units one and two and unit six now, to see the guys doing the work and the girls doing the work. It's the meticulous level of detail that they do in the planning, and then the execution of the work. I mean, it's actually one of the most tedious things to watch because the speed that we lift the steam generator or the reactor building is literally you can't see it move. So to actually stand there for an hour and watch a steam generator being lifted out is uneventful, and we need an uneventful because we don't want to obviously anything to happen that the cranium arrives in about 130 See containers. It takes three months to build. Right, it takes six weeks to demolish and remove again from sight. It's a huge piece of equipment, but it's it's so impressive when you see it. Everybody wants to see that the crane and one of the best pictures you'll ever see is is a steam generator being hung off the crane as it's lifted out of the building. It's an amazing sight to see. And you know, then that the replacement part was actually manufactured just down the road here two hours, two hours away in Cambridge. So you're changing those components out with locally Ontario made equipment. It's it's an awesome job.

Chris Keefer  18:22  

Jeff, I could talk to you all day. But we do have an exciting day ahead of us we're touring the plant

Jeff Phelps  18:26  

known as exciting disastrous.

Chris Keefer  18:29  

So we're gonna have to mosey on. But maybe we'll get you back to fill us in on some more details. It's been a pleasure chatting with Nice to meet you. Thanks for coming on Decouple.

Jeff Phelps  18:37  

You're absolutely welcome. Thanks.

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