Ep 121: Mark Lesinski - Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
1 - Early Days in Commercial Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: Where did you first familiarize yourself with nuclear?
Mark Lesinski: Mark Lesinski grew up on Grand Island in the U.S. He has a biology background and studied at the University of Buffalo, where he became interested in radiation science. Lesinski started working at a facility making radioactive sources for industry. He later went to graduate school for health physics and moved on to commercial nuclear from there. One of the problems with radiation is that humans cannot sense it, so instruments had to be invented to sample the environment. When Lesinski transitioned to nuclear power, he got into the operations side of the industry and, later, the project side. By having a different viewpoint, one can try to do a better job of empathizing with the challenges each group is facing. Lesinski cut his teeth on boiling water reactor (BWR) doing modifications and pipe replacements. Issues with intergranular stress corrosion cracking was affecting in the recirculation piping and a whole house change-out was needed to keep asset going. The change-out was never intended in the design, so methods of getting in to replace the pipes had to be determined and executed. When Lesinski moved into the pressurized water reactor (PWR) side of the business, they began to replace steam generators. One of the solutions was to cut a hole in the side of the containment building, remove the faulty component, put a new one in, and repair the hole per standard so it can still be pressurized and act as containment.
2 - Nuclear Decommissioning in the US and the UK
Bret Kugelmass: What steps did you take to round out your nuclear experience?
Mark Lesinski: Mark Lesinski migrated into the decommissioning side because, as many repair activities that took place, some plants just reached the end of their life. His first decommissioning was at Big Rock Point, a small boiling water reactor (BWR) in Charlevoix, Michigan. Lesinski then went to Rocky Flats, a very successful weapons facility in the Department of Energy. During decommissioning, about 1,000 buildings had to be taken down and a lot was learned about environmental cleanup. Rocky Flats is pointed at as a model to the industry for cleanup. As he left Rocky Flats, Lesinski joined a consortium to look at decommissioning a sodium reactor in the UK, which they did not win. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was going to take the assets of the first reactors in the UK and bundle that with 18 other different sites under one organization to be managed and to establish a government-owned, contractor-operated model. Lesinski went over to work with British Nuclear Fuels as they were divesting and the NDA came in to set up contracts. He started out as a transition manager, quickly becoming the site director at Hinkley, the chief nuclear officer for Magnox South, and later the managing director. Lesinski joined the NDA as the chief operating officer for all 18 sites across the UK. He had an understanding of how the team had to perform and how the work would be completed compliantly and safely. Lesinski showed that great safety statistics could be achieved at the same time as reaching milestones.
3 - Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
Bret Kugelmass: How did you make sure that best practices were shared?
Mark Lesinski: Successes and failures were shared and this set of decommissioning missions is still is ongoing. Mark Lesinski spent 10 years in the UK, the last of which he spent working for Rolls Royce. An opportunity came up at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), which includes multiple different sites, many of which will go away after cleanup. Whiteshell in Manitoba is a research site that has prototypes and hot cells, but it currently undergoing decommissioning. The Port Hope Area Initiative in Ontario deals with tailings from the facilities doing separations in the harbor a long time ago. The tailings from the process of separating radium and uranium were spread around the community. After many years of negotiation, the Canadian government made an agreement with the municipalities to clean up the site. Two big surface waste facilities are being created to store the material safely into the future. CNL has a number of prototype reactors, including NPD (Nuclear Power Demonstration), which was the first CANDU to get online. Douglas Point, on the Bruce property, is another closed CNL liability and Gentilly is another closed demonstration reactor in Quebec. Heavy water is an asset, so CNL sells it to a lot of commercial operations and it must be stored as reactors are drained. New Brunswick is a facility working on process cybersecurity, including grid control and reactor control. Chalk River is where CANDU was born and is where the second sustained criticality occurred after Enrico Fermi’s work in Detroit. Chalk River was also Canada’s contribution to the Manhattan Project, but Canada took a very deliberate step away from the weapons side, putting the country in a position in which they can be a good arbiter for international nuclear work.
4 - Impact of Chalk River Laboratories
Bret Kugelmass: Tell me about Chalk River’s role in all things nuclear.
Mark Lesinski: There is so much more to nuclear that is not weapons, however, when people talk about nuclear, they see a mushroom cloud. Isotopes, low-carbon energy, industry applications, and understanding materials are all aspects of nuclear that people miss. Canada is a great example of the positive aspects of nuclear. The costs for making isotopes were being borne by the Canadian taxpayer and a decision was made that Canada would not subsidize the product. About a half billion patients had scans from the moly-99 that was created in reactors at Chalk River. About a half billion patients whose tumors were treated via the cobalt-60 that was also created at Chalk River. When Mark Lesinski got into nuclear, the industry was already starting to retreat and didn’t do the outreach needed so that people would understand the technology. Lesinski and his team arrived at Chalk River in 2015. The Canadian government decided to restructure and do some divestiture of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL). At the time, AECL had the CANDU design and was trying to sell the reactors and make isotopes as a government organization. They sold off the CANDU portion to SNC-Lavalin, who are now the ones pushing and promoting the new design. The laboratory had a lot of liabilities because there has been a lot of waste issues and, in the early days of nuclear, they didn’t know what to do with waste. The industry knows how to deal with the waste now, but it has become a political and social issue and is no longer a technical issue. A government-owned, contractor-operated approach was adopted for the laboratories with the missions being clean up of waste and also an investment of $1.2 billion into new buildings and facilities to have new missions and be relevant in the world.
5 - Small Modular Reactors in Canada
Bret Kugelmass: What is nuclear’s role in baseload power?
Mark Lesinski: Renewables are really good up to point, until the cost is doubled because the amount of solar panels and wind turbines would need to be doubled to provide baseload power. One of the missions at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is small modular reactors (SMR). The northern part of Canada is very sparsely populated, but there are many communities that exist whose quality of life is suffering. They currently get electricity from diesel that is transported up via the ice roads or flying it in, making it incredibly expensive and accelerating their environmental problems. Canada has a huge domestic need for another solution. They are also looking at wind and solar, but during a cold, long winter night, there is no sun and often no wind, making it so they will never be able to survive on renewables. Industry has to work hard to get people to understand the technology and listen to any issues they may have. Canada has a nuclear regulatory system that is looked at as one of the models to be replicated in other countries because they protect the public, but are also technology-agnostic. The agility of the regulator can help make SMR deployment happen. In order to make a nuclear reactor, it requires a huge supply chain. Canada has the biggest refurbishment projects going on in the whole world of nuclear right now, which requires a supply chain. The schedule for completion of Canadian refurbishment and deployment goals for SMR’s match up beautifully.
6 - Canada’s Keys to Success in Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: Can the nuclear decommissioning teams transition to become the manufacturing workforce for the next generation of reactors?
Mark Lesinski: The teams working on nuclear decommissioning can transition to become the manufacturing workforce for the next generation of reactors. Canada is the only place this is happening around the world. There must be a workforce that understands how to complete the work and be successful at it. There is a whole litany of reactor designs that were looked at at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), including CANDU and the SLOWPOKE reactor, one of the first small modular reactors (SMR). Between Chalk River and Whiteshell, CNL has 22 locations where demonstration reactors could be put in. The communities understand nuclear and understand how important it is to issues being faced in the world. A good regulator can back CNL up and the labs have all the supporting facilities to support a demonstration. CNL’s researchers understand how to work through issues, where it is related to fuels, materials, biological effects, or any other line of expertise. Mark Lesinski was attracted to nuclear out of curiosity, but discovered a well-run industry that is doing amazing work. Through the millenia, humans have gone to more and more concentrated energy, so nuclear made sense from a power side and had all other benefits. Nuclear is part of the baseload solution. The industry must get through to the public about what is going on in nuclear and how nuclear knows how to deal with issues. Nuclear is a big piece of the puzzle for quality of life in the future.