Ep 186: Tim Freeman - Project Director, Embalse Life Extension, SNC-Lavalin
1) How did you get into the Nuclear Field? 0:27
Tim Freeman is the Project Director at the Embalse Life Extension Project at SNC-
Lavalin. He has worked in several countries around the world as is currently based in
Tim joined the SNC-Lavalin lab around 12 years ago. Previously, he’d worked in
machine designed at smaller companies building components for automobiles and
medical devices. When approached about joining the nuclear industry, Tim jumped at
Before joining the industry Tim didn’t know much about nuclear and hadn’t aspired to
become a nuclear mechanical engineer. In his work at SNC-Lavalin, Tim has led groups
in tooling-design for the delivery of the retube tooling set. Tim says it’s not dissimilar to
his previous work in industrial automation.
The retube tooling set applies standard mechanical principles tied with automation and
controls. Since Tim works on disabled nuclear reactors, his work does not require the
same level of safety controls use in operating nuclear plants.
Tim is continually impressed by the nuclear industry’s ability to adapt and build upon
other types of expertise such as the automation and automotive industries. Those
industries were on a down turn at the same time nuclear was on the rise. Therefore, Tim
says the nuclear industry has benefited from the existing knowledge base of mechanical
engineers from the automation and automotive industries.
2) Can you tell us about the Embalse Nuclear Plant in Argentina? 6:20
Tim and his team have recently completed the refurbishment and restart of the Embalse
CANDU-6 plant. The plant is located about two hours south of Cordoba, Argentina.
Cordoba is a central point of the automotive industry in Argentina. That project benefited
from local programmers who are experienced in machine design and building. The local
experts have the knowledge and experience to maintain and use the tools that Tim’s lab
creates in Canada and ships to Argentina.
The Embalse Nuclear Plant leveraged local experience to provide the majority of the
jobs on the project. It is important for Argentina and other countries to be able to
integrate local industries and gain the confidence to build and refurbish more nuclear
plants in the future.
Tim says almost every country aims to be internally self sufficient when it comes to
building and refurbishing nuclear plants. He says Argentina is staying true to this goal
by having about 95-98 percent local workers out of 4,000 workers on site. Select
experts from out of country and some specially sourced materials had to be imported.
But otherwise the production of reactor components was done locally to promote and
develop the local nuclear industry.
The Embalse Nuclear Plant refurbishment provided stable work for many Argentinians
including for the 800 or so permanent plant staff. Tim says the economy of the entire
valley has been bolstered by the project and a solid foundation for future growth. The
original plant was built in the 1970s, with the recent retube, Tim thinks there is potential
for 30 more years of plant operation with the possibility of a second or third retube down
the line. Providing the local community up to 90 years of continuous employment in a
high tech sector that produces clean, reliable power.
3) Was working in Argentina on the refurbishment different than working on
Tim has worked on the Bruce A Restart Refurbishment Project, the Darlington
Refurbishment Project and most recently in Embalse. He has also visited many other
refurbishment sites. Tim says there are differences, of course, but also many
commonalities including strong nuclear safety cultures and knowledgeable staff.
In Argentina, Tim says there are unique aspects of nuclear culture including a highly
educated local population who were qualified and capable. This was important because
the retubing is the core of a CANDU refurbishment project, meaning it is effectively a
At Embalse there are 380 fuel channels (and 480 at Darlington, but basically the same
thing as Embalse, according to Tim). Once workers have the tools to operate the first
channel, it simply requires repetition to remove the rest of the components from the
remaining fuel channels. Once the vessel has had all of the fuel channels removed,
workers can go in with radiation tolerant cameras to do an inspection. The cameras
inspect the insides of the empty vessel that is almost impossible to inspect otherwise
during assembly or operation. At Embalse, the inspection found the vessel to be clean
and in pristine condition.
The vessel is then reassembled with new components to effectively create a new
reactor. Finally, carbon steel pipe “feeders” spanning from one and a half inches in
diameter to three and a half inches diameter. Each fuel channel is fed on either side by
a pair of feeders that connect to a common header up above.
At Embalse and unique to CANDU plants, the steam generators were also replaced. It
was challenging and a first of its kind, according to Tim. Overall, the project progressed
exceedingly well and almost on plan and on budget.
4) Why replace the steam generators? 17:37
In the case of Embalse, there were challenges with corrosion issues in the internal
components, unique to that plant. To extend the life of the Embalse Nuclear Plant, the
steam generators had to be replaced. Tim says most CANDU plants will not require this
extra step at this point.
Embalse was the third plant to undergo this life extension project; previously one
occurred in Korea and another in Canada. Darlington has since been added to the list.
Each refurbishment comes with lessons learned about retubing that can be applied to
the next project. The Embalse Refurbishment Project benefited from previous
knowledge collected during the Korean and Canadian refurbishments, and will continue
to aid in future refurbishments. Refurbishments are essential to the future of nuclear
5) Have you encountered any setbacks during the past three refurbishment
projects that you’re still having trouble solving? 22:22
No, says Tim. At this point there has not been a technical challenge that the nuclear
field has not been able to overcome. Having done it three times on the CANDU-6 and
three times on the Bruce and Darlington configuration, there is a fairly high level of
predictability in the retubing process. Tim says the most complex and unpredictable
issues tend to be scheduling and costs. Getting the basic processes in control and
driving down the weld failure rate is essential to refurbishment projects.
6) Has the post-Fukushima era changed the process of refurbishments? 30:10
The retubing process has not been affected. But there are more safety requirements
that have been implemented to look for additional redundancy or examine areas initially
not considered potential threats during the 1970s.
The refurbishment process is often disconnected to other upgrade initiatives occurring
post-Fukushima. Those upgrades are required either way; therefore refurbishments do
not always fall on the same timeline was essential safety upgrades.
7) Now that Embalse Refurbishment Project is finished, what’s next for you?
There is a lot of work for Tim at home office. He’s phasing into his role as Director of
Project Management Office of Field Services. This office does work all around the
world, but mostly in Ontario, Canada. His goal is to support the long life of the CANDU
community in maintaining and operating rectors through inspections.
Tim partners closely with key clients and his team responds quickly to outage
requirements and outage schedules all around the world. He manages a core team of
experienced technicians and engineers as well as equipment that can be deployed for
specialized non-destructive evaluation techniques.
8) Can you talk more about the CANDU community? 38:24
Tim is a strong believer in CANDU refurbishment as a method of reliable, safe power.
He doesn’t think there is a viable replacement or alternative to CANDU power. CANDU
plants operate on a different life expectancy timeline than other nuclear plants. Most
plants approach regulators based on ten to 20 year life expectancy campaigns. Yet
CANDU approaches refurbishment with the goal of 30 plus 30 and so on.
Tim feels it is important to approach refurbishment in a way that is reliable and safe.
Especially since building new nuclear plants often hits a wall of unpredictable costs and
scheduling and general acceptance. Nuclear refurbishment is predictable, builds on
what is known and accepted in a community, and keeps the operating supply chain
intact. Tim would like to see the next generation of CANDU reactors built, but until then
he wants to promote nuclear refurbishment as a viable alternative.
Refurbishment is often branded as life extension projects. From public perception Tim
thinks it’s better that the plants aren’t brand new plant because brand new plants come
unpredictable risks and uncertainty that things aren’t going to operate as designed.
Whereas, which refurbish plants, the community has more certainty and trust in a plant
that has already been operating for 30 years.
Tim describes this example like a classic car. If someone has a classic car, the engine
might become tired and need an overhaul or maybe even a complete engine rebuild.
But other than the engine, the rest of the classic car is certified and replaceable. Versus
a brand new car off the line, with those Tim says there’s a combination of maybe “they
don’t build them like they used to,” as some people sometimes say about cars, and also
sometimes you get a lemon. Public perception often sides with predictable results.
Especially with plant staff, engineers and operators, they know that plant inside and out
and they are experts on the equipment. It’s better to give back a mostly rebuilt version,
rather than something new and different.
9) Do you have any advice for your children to reflect on in the future about the
modern nuclear field? 47:02
Tim says nuclear may not be perfect. But the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to
climate change. Nuclear power is the best alternative, better than hydro or renewables.
It is important that we don’t allow nuclear power plants to be decommissioned.