Tories call AECL '$30 billion sinkhole,' no more cash for new reactor
By Bruce Cheadle
June 11, 2009
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief spokesman says Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., is a "dysfunctional," $30-billion "sinkhole" that will not get any more funding for a new research reactor.

The new, tough tone from the Conservatives comes as a respected nuclear physicist criticizes what he calls a "horribly short-sighted" government decision that effectively pulls the plug on a half-century of multi-faceted Canadian research at AECL's Chalk River laboratories.

Harper announced this week that Canada will get out of the medical isotope business when AECL's 52-year-old National Research Universal reactor finally gives up the ghost, likely by 2016.

The decision has implications far beyond isotope production, physicist Dominic Ryan of McGill University's Centre for the Physics of Materials told The Canadian Press in an interview.

Not only has the NRU provided the research base for Canada's nuclear energy industry, it's been a workhorse for neutron-beam research on such non-nuclear applications as analyzing booster rocket welds on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle and certifying steel from Regina-based IPSCO Inc., safe for bridge-building.

"Other nations are investing in research reactors," Ryan, the president of Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, said in an interview Thursday.

"And we're just talking about closing the darn things down - the only one we've got.

"And we had the first!" Ryan added, his voice rising with incredulity. "We were in this game ahead of everybody. It really is annoying."

The Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, which represents more than 400 scientists who use neutron beam research, proposes replicating the NRU with an updated "super NRU" version of the same multi-purpose technology.

"We can. It would be easy," said Ryan, adding the project could take advantage of 50 years of technical upgrades and know-how.

"But basically that's what we would like to see happen."

Kory Teneycke, Harper's communication director, made it emphatically clear the government has no interest in such a project.

"The government has put $30 billion into AECL over its history and it's been one of the largest sinkholes of government money probably in the history of the government of Canada," Teneycke told The Canadian Press.

"So I don't think describing it as an unmitigated success is accurate."

Teneycke added there's been "some pretty well-founded, sharp criticism of the history of AECL . . . . I don't think we're going out on a limb to say it has been a fairly dysfunctional place."

Last year, the Tories cancelled two ill-fated AECL medical isotope reactors at Chalk River, called MAPLES, after they went hundred of millions over budget and still failed to pass design inspections.
The MAPLES were focused on isotope production and were never designed as multi-purpose research replacements for the NRU.

"The fact is we are not going to make further investments into the MAPLE - which is the research reactor project at AECL," said Teneycke.

As for another government-built research reactor, that too was shot down.

"I don't think anyone is looking at giving a couple of billion dollars more to AECL at this point for a new project," said Teneycke.

"What we're focused on is trying to restructure AECL right now."

Teneycke said the Chalk River decision won't end nuclear research in Canada, or government sponsorship of such research.

"I'm sure there's room for government involvement in many potential ways, but the government would have to look at that on a case-by-case basis."

Ryan sees it differently, saying the renewed boom in nuclear research world-wide will quickly siphon off Canadian expertise.

"If we wait long enough, NRU will pop and have to be shut down and that will be the end of it. Everyone just sort of closes the doors and walks away. That will be a terrible thing to lose."

Ryan is set to appear next Tuesday before the Commons natural resources committee, which is studying Chalk River and the isotope crisis.

On Thursday, the committee heard another expert echo much of Ryan's argument about the long-term need for a research reactor at Chalk River.

John Waddington, a former director general of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said the new power generation reactor that AECL is currently trying to sell to Ontario, the ACR 1000, "is also dependent on timely experimental work planned to be done in the NRU."

Waddington said the safety of Canada's existing reactor fleet and "the continued development of the nuclear power business in Canada depend on having a research reactor available . . . .

"In the longterm, it means a replacement for the NRU will eventually be needed."

Teneycke later backed away from his earlier comments, saying he "spoke in haste and in error" and should have limited his remarks to the MAPLE reactors and not AECL as a whole.
Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.