Canada's Nuclear Dilemma (2) -- Edwards, 1982

Canada's Nuclear Dilemma

Part Two

by Gordon Edwards, Ph.D.

Canadian Journal of Business Administration

Special Issue:
"Energy, Ethics, Power, and Policy"

Volume 13, Numbers 1 and 2, 1982
University of British Columbia


Reactor Safety

As previously indicated, one area requiring urgent attention is reactor safety. If the core of a nuclear reactor is not adequately cooled, it will become severely damaged, releasing large quantities of radioactive gases and vapours. Every reactor is therefore equipped with a number of critical safety devices: emergency shut-down systems, emergency cooling systems, and an elaborate containment system. Public confidence in CANDU safety has been shaken in recent years by a number of disturbing revelations:


Atomic Energy Control Board Exhibit E-71
Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs
filed 2 August 1979


ECCS = Emergency Core Cooling System (gravity fed injection).
SDS1 = Emergency Shut-Down System 1 (shut-off rods, spring loaded)
SDS2 = Emergency Shut-Down System 2 (liquid poison injection)
CONT = Containment System (e.g. open vents, unsealed doors, etc.)

According to the AECB, no safety system should be unavailable more than 1/1000 of the time -- that is, no more than 7 hours per year, based on an assumed 80 percent capacity factor for the plant.

This target was exceeded by all safety systems at Bruce "A" during the last three quarters of 1978.

ECCS, for example, was unavailable for 39 hours during the fourth quarter of 1978; that is 22 times above the target.

It follows that the probability of a serious accident may be much greater than has been asserted by Canadian nuclear authorities.

  • Five of the nine large power reactors in Ontario have been forced to operate at reduced power levels for safety reasons, and Toronto City Council has requested that the other four reactors also be operated at reduced power until current safety standards are met [49].

  • Gentilly-1 has been mothballed for safety reasons, after a very disappointing performance record [50].

  • Cracks have been discovered in the containment walls at Lepreau-1 and Gentilly-2 [51].

  • The AECB has recently decided to abandon its most fundamental reactor licensing criterion, after having assured the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning and the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs that this criterion is and always has been the basis for public protection in Canada (see Table 5) [52].

    Table 5
    (Now Obsolescent)
    Emergency Reference Dose Limits (Not to be Exceeded)

                         Individual Dose (rads)   Population Dose
     Type of Accident    Whole Body     Thyroid     (person-rads)
    Single Mode Failure    0.5            3.0           10 000
    Dual Mode Failure     25.0          250.0        1 000 000

    Source: Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (1977b).


    AECB (1980b) does away with the limit for population dose, though it (and not the individual dose) determines the number of expected cancers and genetic effects.

    The single mode/dual mode categories are replaced by six new categories, each a collection of accident scenarios. Any scenario not explicitly mentioned is not subject to regulatory limits. The scenarios are couched in highly technical language conveying little or no meaning to the non-specialist.

    No official reason has been given for abandoning the traditional criterion.

  • While nuclear reactors are considered relatively non-polluting in normal operation, a major reactor accident involving substantial core melting could be an unmitigated disaster [53]. As the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs has pointed out,

    . . . It is not right to say that a catastrophic accident is impossible.... The worst possible accident ... could involve the spread of radioactive poisons over large areas, killing thousands immediately, killing others through increasing susceptibility to cancer, risking genetic defects that could affect future generations, and, possibly contaminating for future habitation or cultivation, large land areas (Ontario, 1979b, pp. 9- 10).

    Off-site property damage following a core melting accident can run into many billions of dollars--enough to ruin any corporation. For this reason, the Nuclear Liability Act was passed in 1970 and proclaimed in 1976, limiting the liability of Canadian utilities to a maximum of $75 million for each nuclear site [54]. Private insurance companies, recognizing the potentially ruinous implications, have refused to provide any coverage to property owners for damage caused by radioactive contamination [55].

    Noting that accident scenarios involving fuel melting have never been examined in any technical detail by Canadian nuclear authorities, the Select Committee made the following recommendation (which has yet to be acted on):

    . . . The AECB should commission a study to analyze the likelihood and consequences of a catastrophic accident in a CANDU reactor. The study should be directed by recognized experts outside the AECB, AECL and Ontario Hydro. It should be funded by a special grant from the federal government. If this study is not commissioned by July 31, 1980, the province of Ontario should ensure that it is undertaken (Ontario, 1980d, p. 37).

    During thirteen weeks of safety hearings conducted by the Committee, representatives from AECB, AECL, and Ontario Hydro objected that such a study "would likely take a number of years to complete and would represent a very major research undertaking" (ibid., p. 47). The extensive manpower requirements for such an investigation, it was argued, would conflict with other high-priority tasks in the nuclear field. However, in view of the current slump in sales, those very manpower requirements can be seen as a powerful argument for embarking on a comprehensive CANDU safety study without delay. It will help to keep the nuclear option alive by keeping the nuclear technologists busy.

    Such a "worst case" study would be valuable to decision makers, particularly in formulating emergency contingency plans and establishing reactor siting policies. Four major questions requiring definitive answers are the following:

    1. Meltdown Probabilities. According to the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, the most realistic probability estimate for a complete core melt-down in a CANDU reactor is about 1 in 10 000 per reactor per year, or about 1 in 300 for a reactor lifetime of thirty to thirty-five years. With twenty reactors now committed in Ontario, the overall probability of a complete core meltdown is therefore about 1 in 15 -- which is more than twice the probability of rolling a 'twelve' with two dice (see Table 6) [56]. If this probability estimate is borne out by more detailed study, it may be wise to prohibit the construction of any more nuclear reactors near large population centres, significant agricultural regions, or important navigation routes.

    Table 6

    Type of            1 Reactor  1 Reactor  20 Reactors  20 Reactors
    Accident            (Annual)  (Lifetime)   (Annual)     (Lifetime)
    Loss-of-coolant a     1/100      1/4          1/5         99.7 %
    Core Melt-down  b  1/10 000    1/300        1/500         1/15


    a) AECL Safety Report for Lepreau-1, 1979.
    b) Ontario, 1978, pp. 78-79.

    These calculations assume a 30 to 35-year lifetime for a CANDU reactor.

    1. Extra Cooling. According to the U.S. Reactor Safety Study (WASH 1400), a prolonged loss of regular cooling and emergency cooling will inevitably result in a complete core melt-down [57]. However, Canadian authorities have argued, without proof, that core melting would be prevented in a CANDU reactor by the extra cooling capability of the heavy water moderator [58]. If this claim can be convincingly substantiated, then the superior safety of CANDU reactors would constitute an important selling feature in competition with American light water reactors.

    2. Melt-through Phenomenon. According to American studies, a molten reactor core will unavoidably melt through the floor of the reactor building into the ground below, thereby breaching containment [59]. Ontario Hydro officials have argued, without proof, that even if the core of a CANDU reactor did melt, it would not penetrate the floor of the reactor building [60]. If it can be authenticated, this feature would provide yet another strong selling point for the CANDU.

    3. Evacuation Plans. Core melting in a CANDU reactor is assumed to be so improbable by the AECB that large-scale evacuation plans are not considered necessary [61]. However, if the AECB assumption is shown to be unwarranted, then detailed evacuation strategies and specialized medical facilities may become mandatory [62]. Considering the amount of advance preparation that might be required, it seems irresponsible not to carry out the necessary technical studies as soon as possible.

    The foregoing paragraphs refer to catastrophic accidents. However, as the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident has dramatically demonstrated, even non-catastrophic accidents, involving extensive fuel damage but little or no fuel melting, can have profound economic repercussions [63]. Indeed, several major American reactor safety studies published in the last ten years have called special attention to the potential hazards associated with a "small loss-of-coolant accident," such as the one that occurred at TMI [64]. Until quite recently, this particular type of accident was considered as inconsequential by most nuclear authorities, including Canadian authorities. It was felt that the emergency safety systems could easily cope with any small loss-of-coolant accident, so as to prevent significant damage to the reactor. The major contamination at TMI, which will take many years and cost billions of dollars to clean up, proves that any complacency on this score is unjustified.

    According to official AECL estimates, the probability of a small loss-of-coolant accident in a single CANDU reactor, during its expected lifetime of thirty to thirty-five years, is greater than one in four. With twenty reactors currently committed in Ontario, the overall probability of at least one small loss-of-coolant accident occurring at some time in the future is greater than 99.7 per cent (see Table 6) [65]. Before any further nuclear commitments are undertaken, therefore, a thorough investigation should be launched into the likelihood of severe core damage occurring in a CANDU reactor as a result of a small loss-of-coolant accident [66]. It is sobering to realize that a single such accident in a complex of eight reactors (such as the Pickering complex) or four reactors (such as the Bruce complex) would require all eight (or four) reactors to be shut down for an extended period of time, because they are all connected to the same vacuum building. Careful study may identify measures that could be taken to prevent, or at least help to mitigate, the effects of such an accident.

    There are other safety questions requiring urgent attention, such as those relating to the seismic integrity of CANDU reactors. In 1974, an American study concluded that a small loss-of-coolant accident would likely result if an earthquake occurred during a CANDU refuelling operation [67]. If it can be shown that such fears are unfounded, or that the CANDU emergency cooling system will not be incapacitated by such an incident [68], the CANDU system will appear more attractive to many potential customers situated in regions of high seismic activity.

    All of these safety questions are challenging and significant ones. Canadian nuclear technologists should welcome the opportunity to wrestle with them during the slack period of the 1980s. All that is required is leadership, determination, and adequate funding from the federal government.

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    When a nuclear reactor has outlived its usefulness, it cannot be simply abandoned or salvaged for scrap, because the structure itself remains intensely radioactive long after the conventional generating equipment and the spent fuel have been removed [69]. A study conducted for the U.S. Atomic Industrial Forum recommends a cooling-off period of seventy to one hundred years in order to reduce the occupational exposures of the men who will eventually be hired to dismantle the reactor [70]. When a small American research reactor at Elk River was dismantled in 1971, radiation fields of 8000 rads per hour were measured two years after shutdown. In the core area of a large power reactor, radiation fields of millions of rads per hour could be encountered shortly after shutdown [71]. A lethal dose of radiation is about 700 rads.

    The high capital cost incurred in building a nuclear reactor is echoed by the high capital cost required to decommission it. However, because no commercial power reactor has yet been decommissioned [72], there are wide discrepancies in the available estimates. A U.S. Congressional Committee reported that decommissioning costs will probably lie in the range of 3 to 100 per cent of the initial capital cost of the plant [73]. An AECL study on CANDU decommissioning favours a cost figure near the lower end of this spectrum: $30 million per reactor, with work commencing just one year after shut-down [74]. Ontario Hydro officials have since admitted that the actual cost could be $100 million or more, and that the entire decommissioning phase may have to be spread out over forty years [75]. Because of the high radiation fields, it would not be surprising if decommissioning costs prove to be several hundred million dollars per reactor [76]. At any rate, decommissioning the twenty reactors now committed in Ontario will cost at least $600 million, if not several billion [77]. These estimates do not include the disposal costs for the radioactive rubble.

    If any serious reactor accidents occur, the associated decommissioning costs will of course be much higher. As at TMI, reactors that have malfunctioned may prove to be extraordinarily difficult and dangerous to decommission. At present, for example, no one knows how to decommission a reactor that has melted down. The TMI clean-up may be a portent of much worse to come.

    It is vitally important that Canada gain some experience in decommissioning power reactors before many more years go by. As the U.S. General Accounting Office has pointed out to the U.S. Congress,

    The possibility of [the nuclear] industry ending raises questions as to whether there will be nuclear-related organizations, nuclear equipment, and individuals expert in the nuclear field that would be capable of dealing with the decommissioning and decontamination problems that could remain for about 100 years after the last reactor is shut down (U.S., 1977, p. 24).

    If the Canadian nuclear industry fails in the next ten or fifteen years, despite all efforts to secure additional sales, before the tools and techniques needed to decommission CANDU reactors have been devised, the burden on future generations could be staggering [78].

    To prevent such a fiasco, action should be taken now. Nuclear experts hitherto engaged in reactor construction should be hired by the federal government to assist in the decommissioning of the now-defunct Gentilly-1 reactor on a priority basis. Since this 250 MW reactor operated for less than two hundred days in a period of more than ten years, radiation fields will be much less intense than in a larger reactor that has seen many years of regular service. Gentilly-1 will provide an excellent training ground for decommissioning, because errors caused by inexperience will be less threatening to the workers. Rugged and reliable robotic equipment, which will be needed to minimize radiation exposures when larger reactors are decommissioned, can be field-tested at Gentilly-1. Techniques for packaging radioactive rubble and controlling radioactive dust released from blasting and cutting operations can be developed as needed [79].

    Following the Gentilly-1 experience, more realistic cost estimates for future decommissioning activities can be derived. If the cost turns out to be much higher than expected, the economic viability of nuclear power might be adversely affected. In any event, the sooner it is known whether current industry estimates are high or low, the better.

    The successful development of advanced robotic tools to assist in decommissioning, such as remote-controlled cutting torches and versatile manipulative machinery, could make Canada a world leader in the field of industrial robotics. Canada could get in on the ground floor of a brand new service industry attracting customers from all over the world: nuclear demolition [80]. The non-nuclear technological spin-offs could also be significant, in terms of specialized robotic tools for use in hostile environments of various kinds. It is a promising field.

    If developed in time, this new equipment could be used in the latter half of the 1980s, when Ontario Hydro intends to retube seven of its presently operating reactors at a cost of $500 million or more (1980 $). Inside the core of each reactor, several hundred metallic pressure tubes have gradually stretched out of shape because of intense neutron bombardment [81]. The resulting mechanical strain on the tubes can only be relieved by removing them one at a time and replacing them with new tubes. In an attempt to reduce radiation exposure to the workers, the heavy water moderator will be drained, the cooling pipes will be flushed and decontaminated, and the spent fuel will be removed and/or shuffled to new locations. When the job is complete, the old tubes will be shipped off-site for burial as radioactive waste. Each reactor will have to be shut down for a year or more while this extraordinary repair work is undertaken.

    Decommissioning Gentilly-1 and retubing Ontario's reactors will provide employment for the nuclear industry during the 1980s. Retubing is a difficult and dangerous job, which must be carried out in the presence of high radiation fields. It is, in effect, a "mini-decommissioning" effort. If the workers are to have adequate tools when the time comes, research and development in robotics must be initiated without delay. Decommissioning Gentilly-1 will provide needed experience. Hundreds of technologists and thousands of workers will be required to carry out these tasks [82].

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    Nuclear Wastes

    Still another high priority item for the 1980s is nuclear waste disposal.

    Obviously, research and development into waste disposal should be given the highest priority.

    There is plenty of work that needs to be done, ranging from basic scientific research to the manufacture of specialized equipment and the construction of large engineered facilities. Given a comprehensive plan of attack, large segments of the nuclear industry could be usefully employed for years. Canada does not yet have such a plan, but it could be put together in six months or a year. Unfortunately, the federal government has tended to regard waste disposal as a public relations problem, rather than recognizing it as a grave technical and political challenge requiring urgent attention [87]. Responsibility for research in this area has been unwisely delegated to AECL, a Crown corporation that has been singularly inept in dealing with the public [88]. As a result, the Canadian waste management program has been stalled and, in some respects, bungled.

    Some clarification is in order at this point. There are basically two major nuclear waste problems in Canada, quite different in nature. Neither of them is being handled responsibly at the present time. The high-level waste disposal problem has been mismanaged by AECL. The low-level waste disposal problem has been largely ignored [89].

    The first problem relates primarily to the fiercely radioactive spent fuel bundles, which can only be handled by remote control [90]. Spent fuel is classified as high-level waste: compact in volume, but incredibly concentrated in toxicity. The U.S. Geological Survey has pointed out that there is not enough fresh water in the entire world to dilute the high-level waste from the American nuclear power program to acceptably low levels of radiation [91]. It is hoped that such waste can be buried deep in the bowels of the earth, so that none of it will ever escape. This concept, which has not yet been scientifically verified, is called "geological disposal."[92] Canada's existing nuclear fuel management program, under the control of AECL, is actually a research program into the concept of geological disposal. The program, which dates from 1978, has suffered a series of severe set-backs [93]. It is now proceeding at a slow crawl. AECL has recently leased nine hundred acres of land at Lac du Bonnet near Winnipeg, where it hopes to construct an underground test repository to facilitate scientific studies.

    The second major nuclear waste problem is how to dispose of the vast quantities of sand-like mill residues known as uranium tailings -- over 100 million tons in Canada alone. These radioactive wastes are generally deposited in huge outdoor piles, where they can be blown by the wind and washed by the rain. Though classified as low-level wastes, uranium tailings are highly toxic and will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years (see Figure 4) [94].

    Figure 4:

    Radiotoxic Hazard of Nuclear Wastes
    for Ten Million Years

    Source: Bredehoeft et al., (1978)


    Ra = radium
    Pu = plutonium
    U   = uranium
    Np = neptunium
    Th = thorium

    The solid lines indicate the ingestion hazard of selected radionuclides in high-level waste during 10 million years.

    The radiotoxic hazard measure is the volume of water required to dilute the radionuclide to its maximum permissible concentration.

    Data are normalized for one metric ton of light-water reactor fuel. The dotted line indicates the ingestion hazard of the associated uranium mill tailings.

    The radioactive poisons that are routinely released from the tailings into the air and water -- notably radon and radium -- are among the most potent carcinogens known to medical science. Fatal cancers can result from chronic inhalation or ingestion of even minute doses [95]. Yet the radioactive sand is so inoffensive in appearance that it has frequently been used as construction material by unsuspecting or unscrupulous persons [96]. Below-grade disposal is considered necessary to reduce atmospheric radon emissions, and some form of immobilization is needed to prevent serious contamination of ground water [97]. No satisfactory disposal technology has yet been developed, but cost estimates for disposing of the Elliot Lake tailings have ranged from $300 million to $18 billion [98]. It is not obvious that revenues generated by uranium mining will be adequate to pay for the ultimate disposal of the tailings, if and when a technology for doing so has been found [99]. According to the terms of uranium contracts signed by Ontario Hydro in 1977, the cost of tailings disposal will be passed on to the utility, yet this cost is not reflected in the price of nuclear electricity [100].

    With a vastly expanded and restructured nuclear waste management program, both the high-level waste problem and the low-level tailings problem could be addressed in earnest during the 1980s. Postponing this research is not in the public interest, since the results may have a decisive influence on any future decision to build more reactors or to phase out nuclear power. As Dr. Chris Barnes, past president of the Canadian Geoscience Council, has remarked:

    [Waste disposal] is not simply an engineering problem.... In many cases the basic [scientific] work has not been done, particularly in the areas of hydrogeology and hydrogeochemistry.... We are scared as hell that the [time] limits, the actual dates . . . being bandied around, are totally unrealistic.... It seems to me we should be spending more money.... Look at the amount of investment that society has placed in both the development of a nuclear reactor system -- the CANDU system -- and what it spends in actually promoting this abroad.... It is an absolute disgrace that we are not prepared to accept [waste disposal] as a problem and fund it accordingly (Ontario 1978/81, 24 January 1980, pp. 25-37).

    During 1979, only $16 million out of a total AECL budget of $250 million was spent on waste research; almost nothing was spent on tailings disposal research [101]. Technical people outside the nuclear establishment have had difficulty in obtaining information about the status of the research that is being conducted. Normal standards of scientific review are not being followed [102].

    In 1978, as already noted, AECL was authorized by the federal government to initiate a research program towards the ultimate disposal of spent fuel in the pre-Cambrian shield of northern Ontario [103]. However, AECL soon succeeded in antagonizing many communities in the north by its pro-nuclear bias and its public relations approach. Glossy brochures and promotional films intended to win public support for nuclear power often had the opposite effect [104]. It seemed to many that AECL had already prejudged the research and concluded that it was bound to be successful -- a conclusion unsupported by hard evidence [105]. Many northerners became justifiably concerned that if they accepted field research from AECL now, they might be forced to accept an unpopular nuclear waste repository later on [106]. Such fears were compounded when it was revealed that AECL had plans to build a large plutonium separation plant, eventually, on the same site as the proposed waste repository [107]. To make matters even worse, citizens felt totally excluded from the decision-making process because of AECL's practice of holding closed-door meetings with local town councils [108]. On numerous occasions, AECL spokesmen made it perfectly plain that they regarded the waste disposal question primarily as a public relations problem [109]. The resulting loss of public confidence was devastating. Before long, many northern communities had passed resolutions barring AECL from conducting any research activities whatsoever within their jurisdictions [110]. By the summer of 1980, AECL's program of field research was in a shambles [111].

    During testimony to the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs, representatives from the Canadian Geoscience Council [112] suggested a number of improvements that would help to restore public (and scientific) confidence in the waste management program:

    In its report, the Select Committee was generally supportive of these suggestions. The Committee added a few extra recommendations concerning mechanisms for ensuring adequate public participation in the decision-making process. The Committee also called attention to the fact that the AECB, as the regulatory body for the nuclear industry, is presently unequipped to deal with the waste disposal issue [115].

    The call for reorganization is clear . The need for an expanded research program is urgent. The way to proceed is well delineated. There is much to be done. All that is required is the political will to carry it out.

    As in the case of decommissioning, Canadian expertise in nuclear waste disposal may be exportable at a profit later on, since a great many countries around the world will ultimately have to face these same problems [125]. Some of the management and disposal techniques devised for nuclear wastes will undoubtedly be applicable to other dangerous wastes, such as persistent chemical toxins. These spin-offs could also be marketed.

    By 1990, more realistic cost estimates for nuclear waste disposal may be available than those currently given. From the foregoing discussion, it should be apparent that present cost estimates have little basis in fact [126].

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    As an energy source, nuclear power in Canada is relatively insignificant. In 1977, only 1.3 per cent of Canada's delivered energy was in the form of nuclear-generated electricity, compared with a 4.1 per cent contribution from wood-pulp wastes burned on the west coast in the same year (see Figure 5).

    Figure 5:

    Canada's Secondary a Energy Consumption
    by Fuel Type (1977)


    Norm Rubin, What Keeps Us From Freezing in the Dark?

    A Breakdown of Canada's Secondary a
    Energy Consumption by Fuel Type

    (Toronto: Energy Probe, 1977)
    based on Statistics Canada data.


    a) "Secondary Energy" refers to energy delivered to the consumer. Nuclear power contributes three times as much primary energy, but since more than two thirds of this energy is wasted, it is not reflected in these figures.

    b) "Direct woodpulp" available to the B.C. pulp and paper industry only.

    Moreover, according to EMR data, the gap between wood-pulp wastes and nuclear power is expected to widen in the next fifteen years [127]. Even in terms of base-load electricity generation, the economic advantages of nuclear power are often exaggerated. The costs of safety, decommissioning, and waste disposal are almost certainly underestimated. Under pessimistic conditions, any one of these costs could increase the price of nuclear electricity dramatically. Even without considering such externalities, however, nuclear power is no bargain. As Jack Gibbons has shown, when a nuclear plant is compared with a coal plant in the Ontario context, using a competitive rate of return figure, the difference between the two is really quite minimal (with a slight advantage for coal) [128].

    On the other hand, the problems posed by nuclear power are awesome. Nuclear annihilation [129], environmental contamination [130], cancer epidemics [131], catastrophic accidents [132], genetic defects [133], sabotage [134], economic bankruptcy [135], energy insufficiency [136] -- these are possibilities that must be weighed very soberly, because they are all very real.

    According to one definition, politics is the art of foreseeing the inevitable and facilitating its occurrence. Instead of trying to prop up a faltering industry that has no markets, the Canadian government should offer alternative employment to those whose careers are threatened. As indicated in the foregoing article, much of the money and effort now going into needless nuclear expansion can be fruitfully rechannelled. With a ten-year moratorium on nuclear expansion, less public opposition to the nuclear industry will be encountered, and more co-operation will be possible. There is much important work to be done in the fields of reactor safety, decommissioning, and waste disposal -- enough to keep the nuclear option alive during the 1980s by keeping the critical teams of nuclear technologists intact. There might even be some profitable developments arising out of these activities. Meanwhile, during the 1980s, investment capital liberated from the nuclear industry can be used to finance a massive transition towards a more energy-efficient society in Canada. Such an attempt at rationalization may prove to be a lot easier than, for example, trying to make a profit on the overseas sale of a CANDU reactor.

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    * Editor's note: the revised version of this paper was accepted for publication in September 1981.

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