Canada trying to sell reactors called unsafe

Colin Nickerson
Boston Globe
June 25, 1998

MONTREAL – The country that jump-started India’s nuclear weapons program is aggressively seeking to sell atomic reactors to China, Turkey and other nations with poor reputations for protecting either human rights or the environment.

Moreover, the nuclear reactors that Canada is peddling abroad are the same models, in basic design, as atomic generators shut down in Ontario in recent months after being deemed too dangerous to operate.

The pending $3 billion sale of a pair of reactors to China, approved by the government but still facing a court challenge by the Sierra Club, has drawn furious criticism from environmental groups both in Canada and abroad.

Now Ottawa is quietly offering Turkey more than $1 billion in taxpayer-backed loans in hopes of selling two more reactors, in an effort to salvage its own government-subsidized and deeply troubled nuclear industry.

In both deals, the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien is refusing to subject the nuclear projects to the same environmental assessments that Canadian law requires for far smaller international aid programs.

One ludicrous result: ”Ordinary” foreign projects funded by Ottawa, such as the Canadian-sponsored construction of latrines at a missionary clinic in Bolivia, the building of a fence in Colombia and startup of rabbit-breeding farms in South Asia, must undergo much more rigorous environmental reviews than the export of nuclear reactors capable of producing plutonium and other nuclear weapons material.

The export sales of nuclear reactors built by a government-owned corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., are exempt from review under a special law hastily pushed through by the Chretien government in 1996 to speed up the sale to China.

Canada’s timing was auspicious. In that year, American companies were still banned from selling nuclear technology to China because, according to the CIA, Beijing was providing major assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

Later, President Clinton rescinded the ban, partly because the nuclear energy lobby in the United States complained that American companies were losing multi-billion dollar sales to Canada.

Canada’s reactors, named Candu, for Canadian Deuterium Uranium, are reputed internationally to be easier to build than competing models sold by American, German and French firms. But the Candu reactor is so difficult to operate that over the past year, Ontario Hydro, North America’s largest utility company and the employer of some of the most highly trained nuclear technicians in the world, has closed seven of its reactors for safety reasons. That represents a stunning third of the 21 nuclear reactors operating in Canada, all Candus, a reactor type once regarded as a reliable world beater but now suffering dismal performance ratings.

The Ontario reactors were dogged by a terrifying series of leaks, power failures and inadequate monitoring, according to internal reviews. Candu reactors sold abroad have also suffered leaks and other serious mishaps.

But the Chretien government asserts there is no need for an environmental assessment in the sale of two 700-megawatt Candu 6 reactors to China because the reactors are safe, China is an experienced nuclear country and controls are in place to ensure the reactors will not be used to create weapons.

As for the troubles that forced the closure of the Ontario reactors, Canadian nuclear officials shrug these off as ”management problems.”

”In other words, Canadian Candu reactors are perfectly safe to operate by anyone except highly trained Canadians,” said Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club-Canada. ”In reality, Canada is showing an appalling contempt for environmental law in its crazed effort to find foreign markets for reactors that it can no longer build at home.”

The Sierra Club has sued to force the government to complete a thorough environmental review of the project, as is mandatory for all other Canadian foreign aid. The suit is expected to go to court within the next few months despite delaying tactics by Ottawa and the nuclear industry.

As in the United States, Canada’s nuclear industry is essentially dead, with no new reactors under construction or even planned for the distant future anywhere in the country. But with billions of tax dollars invested in the technology, the government is desperate to find markets in less-developed countries.

”It is somewhat comparable to the American chemical companies that continued to peddle DDT abroad after it was banned at home,” said Norman Rubin, director of nuclear research for Energy Probe, a Toronto-based antinuclear group.

”Canada, which prides itself for taking the moral high ground on issues of peace and diplomacy, is weirdly amoral when it comes to exporting nuclear tecnology,” he said. ”The clients for Canadian Candu reactors are hardly on the list of the most responsible governments in the world. Military juntas, communist dictatorships, strongarm leaders – these are typical Candu clients.”

The countries that have purchased 14 Canadian reactors over the past 40 years include India, South Korea, Romania and Argentina, all of which have less money and technical experience to operate nuclear systems that have bedeviled Canada’s own elite operators. Later this month, Canada may win a multi-billion dollar, two reactor contract from Turkey, where Ottawa is in tight competition with a US-Japan consortium and a French-German atomic group for the sale. Ottawa is also courting Indonesia as a future client.

Aside from the outcry of anti-nuclear groups, the 1996 sale to China received little public attention in Canada. Construction work has already begun on the complex in Qinshan, 75 miles south of Shanghai.

That public indifference changed dramatically last month, when atomic weapons tests in Pakistan and India alerted the world to a dangerous new arms race in Asia, a race in which Canada has direct, if inadvertent, complicity.

Canada’s first exports of nuclear technology, in the 1950s, were to India under the so-called ”atoms for peace” program. India vowed that it would never use the Canadian reactors for anything but peaceful purposes.

But India lied. In 1974, the country exploded a nuclear test device using plutonium from a Canadian-made reactor, by New Delhi’s own admission.

Pakistan, meanwhile, launched its civilian nuclear power program in 1965 with a Canadian-supplied reactor. There is no evidence that Canada’s atomic assistance to Pakistan helped that nation build its first nuclear weapons, although in 1995 Islamabad made a point of publicly thanking both Canada and China for getting its nuclear program underway.

”There is no question that Canada contributed both technology and equipment to the escalation of the nuclear armament situation in India and Pakistan,” said Alexa McDonough, a member of Parliament from Nova Scotia and national leader of the New Democratic Party. ”Canada is going to be one of the countries with the most blood on its hands.”

Ottawa cut nuclear ties to both states in 1976, although Canadian nuclear experts still provide technical assistance. Atomic power advocates say that Canada learned a harsh lesson. ”We will not sell technology to any country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” said Allen Kilpatrick, vice-president for marketing of Atomic Energy of Canada.

Prime Minister Chretien, meanwhile, dismisses the notion that Canada has any moral responsibility for the nuclear arms race in South Asia.

”International regulations … did not exist at the time we did business with India and Pakistan,” he said last week.


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