FRANK SAUNDERS - A friend's tribute

I'm still reeling from the news of Frank Saunder’s sudden passing on July 4. The news didn’t reach me until a couple of days later, and I’ve spent much of the time since thinking about Frank and how much he meant to me and so many others.

Although Frank Saunders was well known throughout the nuclear industry in Canada, few realized the sheer breadth of his experience and knowledge. His way of approaching most topics, even the complex engineering ones, in a straightforward, almost folksy, manner never really revealed how much practical OPEX was stored in his head.

Frank spent many years at Bruce Power, one of the largest nuclear power plant sites (8 CANDU reactors) in the world. Just before stepping down as Vice-President of Nuclear Oversight and Regulatory Affairs, he showed the versatility and passion he had for Canada’s nuclear industry and its future by first, helping to create and fund in 2018 the Industrial Chair at MIRARCO Mining Innovation at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Its mandate is to explore sustainable clean energy solutions in Ontario’s north – and to explore the use of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) to remote mining operations.

To say that Frank was passionate about the application of SMRs to mining in Canada and abroad would be quite an understatement. He was a leader in this regard, an early voice for applying small, safe and transportable nuclear energy sources to remote mining sites and industrial processes. And, as always, he advised practical, near-term solutions wherever possible. Let the imagination run, but, as Frank would have it, you still need a business case, revenue stream, new licensing regulations, and an operator who knew how to run reactors, including SMRs.

The second area where Frank saw farther ahead than most was in the creation of the Nuclear Innovation Institute (NII) in Port Elgin, Ontario. The NII, in its initial conception, was a “hand’s on brain trust”. You may think that’s contradictory, mixing the practical solutions-finders-to-problems arising in the day-to-day operations of a nuclear power fleet with the blue-sky imaginings of what-might-be-achieved if nuclear technology was paired with advances in other disciplines of science and engineering. But that’s what he wanted. And, as far as I can see, that’s what’s indeed happening at the NII, now entrusted to a full-time CEO and staff.

Last year, another side of Frank’s prowess in the field and his impact came to light (for me). Frank kindly invited me to an event being held at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, just across the Ottawa River. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) was holding its annual gala and awards ceremony. Now most Canadians, and I include myself, are singularly under-informed about the CSA and the role it plays “behind the scenes” in our daily lives, making products from the mundane and everyday to the more exotic and complex (i.e. nuclear power operations) usable and safe. In the nuclear industry, CSA is a prominent developer and upholder of standards with which compliance is essential and mandatory.

I knew Frank was very knowledgeable about the CSA and in fact about nearly everything and anything to do with regulations, guidelines, standards, licensing affecting nuclear power operations. But I didn’t know that he was stepping out on the stage for the last – and most prestigious – of the CSA’s awards. Frank was the 2019 winner of the John Jenkins Award, which is bestowed in recognition of “distinguished services in the development, advancement, and application of voluntary standards”.

This very special recognition of Frank’s achievements kind of surprised me, as I sat listening to the tribute read out on stage. But then it didn’t. After knowing him over the past 5 years during my time as President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, I should have guessed I’d only just scratched the surface.

I've been recalling in my mind the countless conversations Frank and I had during this time – ranging from his days as Director of Nuclear Operations running the research reactor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario back to highly entertaining accounts of his squaddie days in the Canadian Army at CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick, where he “blew up things real good” and to early days growing up and working on the family farm. And let’s not forget his work in nuclear plant safety operations in conjunction with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO) in the United States.

Nearly every time he came to Ottawa, he'd stroll over from the Sheraton Hotel (where he was obviously much liked by the staff) to my office at CNA, plunk himself down, and off we'd go on another "tour d'horizon". And every time, I learned something new, something valuable, something astute - whether about nuclear engineering, people, life in general.  To say I enjoyed and treasured these many conversations cannot convey how important they were for me. There was always some nugget of insight, experience, advice that I knew I could hold onto and use – thanks to these moments. 

Frank was exceedingly generous in the time and thought he gave to others. Just to give one example – in the area of nuclear security.  In 2016-2017 I was involved in research projects undertaken by the Washington DC-based Stimson Center’s Nuclear Security Program. We were looking at how the management and accountability for security at a nuclear power plant could be integrated more deeply in corporate governance.  The Stimson Center held a by-invitation workshop to develop this further, as part of their “Re-energizing Nuclear Security” report. I asked Frank if he would come with me and give a presentation. He readily agreed – and instantly became a highly regarded source of expertise for the Stimson researchers. Again, his experience of how one actually runs operations, including security, at a plant was tremendously valuable. It gave additional credibility to the project’s final report.

Frank’s interest in nuclear security did not end there. He was adamant in insisting that, unless a considerably reduced emergency planning zone (EPZ) for SMRs was authorized by the regulator, such technologies would never be deployed in practice. Indeed, at the time of his death, Frank played a strong and leading role in the Candu Owners Group (COG) SMR Security Task Team. Again, he was at the forefront, seeking a practical solution that would never derogate from public safety and security, but would be feasible from a business perspective. Without finding that sweet spot, the industry risked being regulated out of its future – as he often pointed out.

 At CNA, Frank’s advice was very welcome and always helpful. It was a stroke of luck for the organization that he was the Chair during the recent transition between my tenure and the arrival of my successor. This ensured a smooth, successful passing of the baton, to the benefit of all CNA members and stakeholders. And few can forget his masterful performances at Bruce licensing hearings as he replied to questions and statements from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and from the public, including those whose opposition to nuclear power was palpable. He made the workings of the plant and its reactors appear logical, reasonable, practical – such was strength of his clearly stated explanations and views. 

I really loved hearing him speak in public audiences. He was the voice of reason and reasonableness that I believe many people respond to well. Not over-the-top claims or attacks, just quiet, methodical laying out the pros and cons. Hope somewhere, somehow, there's an archive of some of his finest moments, a true expert in the field, a mentor of and for the nuclear industry as a whole.

There's more one can say in memory of Frank. Pages and pages more if we kept going. But then he’d tell me to just stop it, it’s too much.  Well, sorry, Frank, if I’ve gone on too long. I just had to say what I thought of you and how I’ll miss you.