The New York Times
December 3, 1997
On the blustery shore of Lake Ontario, in Canada’s most heavily populated region, four aging nuclear reactors bedeviled by leaks, failures and operators who sometimes drank beer or smoked marijuana on the job are being shut down because they cannot be safely run by one of the largest utility companies in North America.
At the same time, workers are busy excavating a huge site in China, about 60 miles south of Shanghai, where two Canadian reactors similar to the troubled ones in Canada are being built under Canadian supervision.
The four reactors on Lake Ontario, along with three more farther north on the edge of Lake Huron, are being mothballed because their operator — Ontario Hydro — acknowledged last summer that it does not have the money or the proper management to run them safely.
The basic design of the Canadian reactors is unique. Although they are simpler than American-type reactors to build, experts now agree that they are far more complex to keep running safely. Maintaining the units has put enormous demands on Canadian operators with solid technical backgrounds and access to the latest equipment and designs.
However, for the last 40 years, the same type of Canadian-designed and built reactors has been sold to countries around the world, including Romania, India and Argentina, that have far less money or technical expertise than Canada and already are struggling to keep the reactors safe. And because the reactors are unlike any others, the number of qualified operators and knowledgeable inspectors is limited.
The closing of 7 of Ontario Hydro’s 19 operating reactors has underscored the difficulties that Canada itself has had in keeping the reactors running safely. It has also raised questions about Canada’s policy of aggressively exporting them to countries with limited experience in regulating — and in some cases simply operating — nuclear reactors.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, Canada has determinedly tried to use the power of the atom to demonstrate Canadian technological know-how and economic independence. Even the name of the reactor — Candu, for Canadian Deuterium Uranium — was meant to suggest Canadian resourcefulness.
Since 1952, according to one estimate, Canada’s nuclear industry has received more than $10 billion in Government subsidies. It sold 11 reactors overseas, including the 2 to China.
But Canada has repeatedly been scolded by its own citizens and other nations for selling reactors to authoritarian governments in Argentina, Pakistan and Romania. In 1974, India exploded a nuclear device it admitted had been made with plutonium from a reactor purchased from Canada.
Yet the Canadians continue to circle the globe trying to peddle the same reactors that have proved so difficult to manage in their own backyard. One of three bids opened by the Turkish Government in October came from Canada. And Canadian officials continue trying to sell more to Hungary, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, not to mention repeat sales to China, South Korea and Romania.
”All this has to do with a very deeply rooted historic question of technological prestige that has its roots in the nuclear weapons programs of the Second World War,” said David H. Martin, research director for Nuclear Awareness Project, an environmental group in Ottawa. ”Our nuclear research effort was a way to try to rearrange the world’s picture of Canada.”
The Government defends the program, saying that each export sale creates thousands of jobs at home. But critics charge that the Government’s obsession with the reactor blinded it to the project’s serious shortcomings.
Canada’s nuclear program began in the early days of World War II. Supplies of heavy water — in which hydrogen atoms have been replaced by deuterium for use in nuclear experiments — were brought from Norway to Paris and then, when the Nazis occupied France, to England and later to Montreal.
Canada played a minor part in the Allied effort to build the first atomic bomb. But, intent on demonstrating its economic independence, the country set out to exploit its head start with heavy water.
Editor’s Note: December 18, 1997, Thursday An article on Dec. 3 described safety concerns about Canadian-made nuclear power plants sold abroad. It included an estimate that Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the manufacturer of a power plant type known as Candu, had received $10 billion in Canadian Government subsidies since 1952. The article should have pointed out that the estimate was made by an antinuclear group and that the company says it has received less than $4 billion.