AECL has been a niche player and will remain a niche player
There were a couple of interesting updates on the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. saga in the Globe and Mail yesterday, one about Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty urging the federal government to postpone a planned sale of AECL until a deal is struck to sell reactors to Ontario, while the other was about the lack of international interest in AECL’s nuclear business and how, as a result, it will become a niche player in the market selling older, smaller-scale reactor technology and doing refurbishments for the existing AECL fleet.
I put “become” in italics because I’ve always considered AECL a niche player, so the better word is remain. There’s this thinking in some Canadian circles that AECL is being held back from becoming a big player in the international scene, like it’s some washed-up boxer that “coulda been a contender!” But AECL’s chance at international stardom faded some time ago, and the thought that Ontario buying two Advanced Candu Reactors will suddenly make it a contender in the global nuclear marketplace is ridiculous. How can AECL deliver on a new, unfinished design when it can’t even get its old finished designs right? Two Candu refurbishment projects under way in Canada are way over budget and way behind schedule. I remember Bruce Power chief executive Duncan Hawthorne telling the Toronto Star’s Sandro Contenta in 2007 that the refurbishments at Bruce were “a destiny issue for the industry” and that “the failure of this probably means that we wouldn’t want to do it again.” Now that project is two years delayed and $2 billion over budget, as we learned earlier this month. It boggles the mind why the Ontario government would still seriously consider a new reactor purchase based on the poor track record of this technology, which continues to this day, and it’s no surprise the federal government doesn’t want to backstop it given how much of taxpayers’ money it has already put at risk. Nor does Bruce Power, one of only two groups (both Canadian) willing to bid for AECL’s reactor business but unwilling to shoulder risk in such a deal.
Can we stop with this nonsense that AECL is a gem that only needs to be cleaned and buffed to prove its worth? Yes, it has talented, hard-working people working for it, but that doesn’t mean it has the right technology nor does it mean, just because it’s Canadian, that an unsuccessful technology should be perpetually put on public crutches. This is not the Avro Arrow all over again, as some contend. That’s because the Avro program didn’t have a history of overruns, didn’t have the MAPLE reactor fiasco, or the Chalk River fiasco, or the current-day refurbishment fiasco, or the unfinished ACR development project that has proven itself as nothing but a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars. This is a company that has consistently failed to prove its worth in a world that’s quickly blowing past it. If it dies, it dies on its own sword, just as any other company would if it were in the private sector.
This isn’t an anti-nuclear rant. This isn’t even a criticism of Candu’s heavy-water technology, which may be better than more popular light-water technologies but simply failed to get the market excited (read: Beta vs. VHS syndrome). This is just about business, a poorly run business.