Ep 183: Catherine Cottrell - Senior Director, Product Development, SNC-Lavalin
1) How did you get into the nuclear field? 1:43
Catherine Cottrell is the Senior Director of Product Development in the nuclear sector. About 60
percent of total power generated in Ontario comes from nuclear energy. Catherine got her
degree in chemical engineering and has been with SNC-Lavalin for 22 years.
Catherine says that chemical engineering principles are applicable to the nuclear field,
especially knowledge in process systems. She’s constantly learning at SNC-Lavalin from her
colleagues in all of the different offices.
Her first role at SNC-Lavalin was in isotope production as a process engineer. Catherine worked
to design the facility to extract the isotopes and make medical isotopes used in diagnostic
Catherine got into nuclear when looking at CANDU fuel cycles.
CANDU stands for Canada Deuterium Uranium. This type of rector is unique in that it can use
natural uranium, whereas other reactors use enriched uranium. To make the rector run, CANDU
reactors use heavy water. Natural uranium is plentiful in Canada, which drives the use of natural
SNC-Lavalin has a mining office, but they act as a designer or vendor, but do not own or run
any rectors. SNC-Lavalin sells their designs to nuclear facilities and is the original equipment
CANDU reactors are unique in that they can use spent fuels from other rector types to generate
power. Her first job was to work with international colleagues from the two CANDU reactors in
China. The Chinese clients were trying to find a way to use other natural resources in their
plants, since China does not have a lot of natural uranium resources. Since China has a lot of
pressurized water reactors (PWR), they are now able to take the spent fuel from those reactors
and use it in the CANDU reactors. Therefore, CANDU reactors recycle spent fuel from other
rectors and obtain more energy.
2) What is the process of fuel storage? 8:53
The uranium fuel bundles, which are about half a meter long, go into the rector and then the fuel
bundles come out of the rector in the same way. The bundles are then safely stored in a spent
fuel pool to cool and decay. The spent bundles are then transferred into a storage container on
site to be monitored and controlled. SNC-Lavalin designed and built the safe storage containers.
3) If we start building more heavy water reactors and less pressurized water reactors, will
we still need to invest in recycling the waste from pressurize rectors? 9:49
Ideally, Catherine would love to focus more on heavy water reactors. But something else that
can be done with a CANDU reactor is to use thorium. Thorium occurs naturally in the Earth in
two or three times greater amounts than uranium. CANDU reactors are the best type of reactor
to utilize thorium, according to Catherine.
Catherine believes all types of reactors are important, but working together with all of the
different types of reactors allows the nuclear field to close the fuel cycle.
4) You work mainly on the fuel cycle and looking at different types of fuels? 10:50
Catherine’s previous work was successful in demonstrating that CANDU reactors can process
different types of fuels. That work was used in the development of a new reactor. That reactor
would be designed to utilize even more of the fuel and improve efficiency and get extra burn up.
This type of reactor could use advanced fuel cycle or either recycled spent fuel or thorium fuels.
Depending on the type of fuel selected, Catherine would work to test the physical properties in a
research reactor, like Chalk River Laboratories. Working with a lab Catherine is able to conduct
controlled testing, collect data, and verify and validate the design process.
5) Since 60 percent of Ontario’s energy comes from nuclear, the Canadian government
seems highly invested in nuclear power? 13:55
Absolutely, says Catherine. In Ontario two nuclear plants are undergoing reactor life extension
projects called refurbishment. The government is invested and has put forth funding to make
sure that the reactors continue to run.
In Canada there is an ongoing project by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to
locate a deep geological repository for spent fuel. The organization is going into communities to
gauge interest and will be selecting a site in the future. Catherine says many of the communities
are embracing and welcoming the repository project.
Catherine says that much of the spent fuel from CANDU reactors has a low level of enrichment
since it came from natural sources. So it is probably unlikely that this type of fuel can be
recycled, unlike the spent fuel from other types of reactors.
6) Why doesn’t Canada have pressurized water reactors? 16:08
Canada doesn’t have PWRs; instead Canada has CANDU reactors, which Catherine says are
the best. The model SNC-Lavalin is working towards building CANDU reactors in countries
without high levels of natural uranium, or places with other types of reactors. This way, new
CANDU reactors can recycle spent fuel or process thorium. The goal is to build one CANDU for
every four PWRs. SNC-Lavalin is primarily focused on working with China to bring this
technology to China because there is such a large fleet of PWRs.
7) How do you market nuclear as a product? 17:38
According to Catherine, CANDU technology is one of the best performing technologies in the
world. SNC-Lavalin has been working on this type of technology for many years, whereas other
nuclear vendors have not spent as much time invested in developing CANDU. Catherine thinks
the perceptions of nuclear can be improved by continuing to demonstrate the safety of CANDU
reactors, and by providing clean energy from a nuclear reactor, and safely storing spent fuel
until the end of its life. Catherine thinks that the nuclear industry can be more forthcoming about
what their technology can do and the benefits nuclear power brings. Promoting the facts is
important, she says.
CANDU reactors can also produce isotopes, which is important for the food industry and
pharmaceutical industry. These particular isotopes provide sterilization.
8) What’s the most exciting project you’ve gotten to work on? 20:30
Catherine says the most exciting project she’s ever worked on was the fuel cycle project. It was
the first time they’ve put a new type of fuel into a reactor and been able to demonstrate that it
behaved as expected. SNC-Lavalin tested this process in the CANDU reactors in China.
The entire project took about three to five years. Catherine says there were challenges, but that
their team and their partners in China embraced any complications and worked together to
solve them. The Chinese have since approved the use of the advanced fuel on CANDU reactors
and full scale will be implemented soon.
9) What’s next for you? 21:47
As Senior Director of Product Development Catherine will now overlook all of the products that
SNC-Lavalin produces. Some of the up and coming products include a cable tester that can be
used to test the health of electrical cables in reactors without having to shut them down. Cables
have to be tested every two or three years, so this improved version makes it easier and less of
a hassle to do routine checks. This cable tester has evolved over the years and SNC-Lavalin’s
new cable tester can measure the recovery time, which is a better indicator of the aging in some
types of cables.
Catherine keeps a close eye on markets to monitor if technology is still relevant and if not, how
her team can modify it through feedback from customers. Catherine’s team has approximately
20 products under development. Right now SNC-Lavalin is heavily investing in designing retube
and refurbishment tools.
10) Can you describe more of your work with CANDU reactors? 29:57
Catherine says a lot of preparation and training goes into refurbishment projects. Her team is
working to design and produce improved retubing and refurbishment tools to make the process
Her team also works on the new build or an advanced CANDU reactor. Catherine says there
are three types of reactors: the CANDU-6; the advanced fuel CANDU reactor, which is an
upcoming release; and the enhanced CANDU-6, a generation three reactor, which is available
for sale. The latter two have post-Fukushima improvements to enhance safety.
Being in the nuclear field, Catherine has learned a lot from interacting with various members of
the SNC-Lavalin team. She thinks that nuclear has to play a large part in the future of power; it
provides the base load of energy. Ultimately, she believes we should have a mixture of other
types of energy, specifically renewable. Catherine hopes that people can learn that nuclear
power is safe and it provides clean energy.