BUSINESS

A failed reaction

Canada may have sold its last CANDU reactor

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 28 1990
BUSINESS

A failed reaction

Canada may have sold its last CANDU reactor

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 28 1990

A failed reaction

BUSINESS

Canada may have sold its last CANDU reactor

From the moment the process of nuclear fission began at Canada’s first experimental nuclear research reactor at Chalk River, Ont., in 1945, the Canadian nuclear industry has been striving to catch up with its foreign competitors. Canada has spent billions of dollars to promote its commercial reactor, the CANDU, which has sold poorly abroad despite a reputation for safety and efficiency that is among the best in the world. Now, Canada’s biggest export sale—five still uncompleted reactors bought by Romania between 1978 and 1981—may turn out to be its last. Western experts

say that the reactors are being shoddily built by unskilled labor. They add that working conditions at the Cemavodä nuclear site on the Danube River are squalid, and include unheat-

ed cardboard buildings with open urinals. But last week, in an attempt to salvage the project, Romania issued an urgent plea for more Canadian help. To complete the reactors, Romania

said that it will need a $300-million loan and at least 60 more Canadian technical experts, in addition to the 18 already at the site.

Energy Minister Jake Epp told Maclean’s that the federal government is still considering the loan request. While Epp acknowledged that he is a “strong supporter” of nuclear energy— his Manitoba riding of Provencher includes the

Whiteshell Nuclear Research facility—he added that the question of the working conditions at Cemavodä puts the government in an awkward position if it continues to support the project. Epp said that changes in management and the manner in which the project is conducted are needed. But he says that the outcome of Romania’s first free elections—to be held on May 20—since the overthrow and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceau§escu last December will not affect whether the loan is granted, Meanwhile, the project remains stalled. Last November, Canadian safety supervi-

sors from Atomic Energy of

Canada Ltd. (AECL), which designs, sells and oversees the construction of the CANDU, halted construction. The team found that almost 30 per cent of the welding was substandard and

had to be redone. But completion of even one reactor at Cemavodä, 150 km east of the capital of Bucharest, remains critical for the Romanians. Said Keith MacFarlane, commercial counsellor at the Canadian Embassy: “With the investment they have in it and the money they’re wasting on importing energy, it’s a high priority for them.”

When the Romanian deal __

was announced in the late 1970s, Ottawa hailed it as proof that Canada’s nuclear industry, with the AECL alone employing roughly 1,400 scientists, engineers and technologists, could compete with the largest exporters of reactors in the world, including the United States, Britain and France. Indeed, Stanley Hatcher, who was then vicepresident of the Whiteshell Nuclear Research facility and is now acting president of the AECL, predicted in 1977 that “Canada’s exports of reac-

tors will only be limited by -our ability to make them fast enough.” But after more than 40 years of development, and $12 billion to support the CANDU program, Canada has sold only 10 reactors abroad: in addition to the Romanian sale, one each has been purchased by Argentina, Pakistan and South Korea, and two by India.

Although AECL is still nominally pursuing international buyers—it maintains marketing offices in six countries—the outlook for future sales is poor. Hatcher says that AECL is currently negotiating with South Korea for the export of another reactor, to be built at its Wolsong site near Seoul. But he also acknowledged that other negotiations with developing countries,

such as discussions with Tur-

key in the early 1980s, have

not been fruitful.

At home, Epp has already engineered renewed government support for Canada’s domestic nuclear industry. Only last month, he announced that there will be no further freezes on the budget of AECL. In contrast to the % dramatic federal government £ funding reductions that AECL 5 has ENDURED-AECL’S total ^ funding from public and pri2 vate sources has remained ^ frozen at 1985 levels—Epp promised that it will now re-

ceive more than $220 million

annually for the next seven years, although it will not be indexed for inflation.

At the same time, Epp also said that “the priority for our nuclear program will be to serve domestic needs.” New products that AECL is counting on include a smaller version of the CANDU called the CANDU 3, which costs

about $1 billion, compared with about $1.2 billion for a full-sized reactor, and can serve a population of about 300,000. Another even smaller reactor, the Slowpoke, costing about $10 million, will be marketed to remote areas or very small centres. The largest market for the CANDU remains Ontario Hydro, which plans to add 10 more CANDUs, at a projected cost of $20 billion, at three sites over 25 years. The project is subject to approval by Ontario’s environmental assessment board.

Amir Shalaby, an Ontario Hydro system planner, says that nuclear power, because it is relatively cheap and safe, is more than ever the wave of the future. Added Hatcher: “More people are becoming adverse to damming rivers and increasing emissions of carbon dioxide from plants that use fossil fuels.”

Still, critics like Norman Rubin, director of nuclear research at the Toronto-based Energy Probe, said that additional support for chronically troubled projects such as Cemavodä is a waste of money for Canada. Added Rubin: “Considering the complexity of the CANDU system and the fact that what has already been built is full of flaws, there is little chance that Romania’s reactors will ever work safely.” For the Canadian nuclear industry, Romania may prove to be the final chapter in its more than 40-year attempt to build an international following.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

SHONA McKAY

ANDREW PHILLIPS