AECL’s chances doubted

(Dec. 22, 2007) An industry expert says the recent Chalk River reactor fiasco is raising doubts that Ontario will purchase new nuclear reactors exclusively from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the federal Crown corporation at the centre of the controversy.

Adding to AECL’s problems, sources say Candu’s heavy-water reactor technology didn’t score top marks in two recently completed reports, one jointly prepared by Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power and the other by consulting firm McKinsey. The reports – not yet public – are meant to assist the provincial government in assessing reactor designs.

“This changes the cards on the table in my view,” said David Butters, president of the Association of Power Producers of Ontario.

The federal nuclear watchdog found last month that AECL had been operating its NRU or “National Research Universal” reactor for 17 months while some safety measures required by its operating licence were incomplete.

When the reactor was shut down, creating a global shortage of medical isotopes used to detect and treat many diseases, it drew attention to two replacement reactors that are nearly 10 years late and tens of millions of dollars over budget.

Others have questioned why AECL didn’t disclose the reactor problem sooner, giving the government and health-care community more time to find alternatives.

“Controversy is never helpful,” said Jerry Hopwood, vice-president of reactor development at AECL. But he said comparing an isotope-producing research reactor to a power reactor, such as the company’s Advanced Candu Reactor, is comparing apples to oranges. “We think AECL and Team Candu and the ACR 1000 will be the best deal for Ontario.”

Hopwood said AECL will be seeking an independent review of the Chalk River incident and the “miscommunication around the circumstances.” Norman Rubin, director of nuclear research at think-tank Energy Probe, said Ontario Energy Minister Gerry Phillips will have to consider the latest events, and how they reflect on the company’s reliability, in the selection process for new reactors.

When it comes to building a new reactor, “it’s not an easy job for good managers to meet a deadline, meet a budget and keep the lights on, but when you add bad management to it, and an organization with a record of making promises it can’t keep – then watch out,” Rubin said.

Phillips will have to proceed with caution, Rubin added. “We’ve gotten burned so many times, either as federal taxpayers by owning the technology or as provincial taxpayers for buying it.”

The minister said earlier this week that the province’s reactor choice will be based on “best technology” and take into account “reliability, the ability to deliver on time and the right price.”

Whereas former energy minister Dwight Duncan always said the government’s preference was to use Canadian technology if it got the best deal, Phillips wouldn’t say whether AECL’s home-team advantage would count.

“It goes without saying that AECL would be one of the front-runners,” he said. “But we are not going to limit the consideration to them.”

The government will consider the recommendations of Ontario’s two nuclear operators. Sources say OPG and Bruce Power don’t rank either AECL’s older Candu 6 reactor or its ACR technology as their top choice.

The report leans toward light-water reactor technologies, offered by companies such as Areva, Westinghouse and General Electric, and also assesses them on availability.

The province has said it will limit new installations to 1,000 megawatts, but that number could go much higher if it’s decided that the reactors at Pickering B can’t be economically refurbished.

Experts say it’s possible, and increasingly likely, that the government will choose Candu technology for one site, such as OPG’s Darlington station, and permit construction of a light-water design at Bruce Power’s site.

Tyler Hamilton, Dec. 22, 2007

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