BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Nuclear slowdown

CHRIS WOOD August 10 1987
BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Nuclear slowdown

CHRIS WOOD August 10 1987

Nuclear slowdown

The sentences were a grim reminder of the nuclear industry’s worst accident to date. A Soviet judge last week sentenced six former officials of the Chernobyl nuclear plant to up to 10 years of hard labor for failing to operate the facility safely. Two people died when an explosion blew a hole in the Ukrainian plant in April, 1986, and another 29 have died since as a result of radiation sickness caused by fallout from the accident. About 200 others from the Chernobyl region are still suffering from the disease, and 135,000 peo-

ple have been unable to return to homes in the area. Worldwide, the political fallout is still settling, as governments analyse their commitment to nuclear energy. And in Canada, heightened public skepticism about nuclear safety is one more problem for the domestic entry in nuclear power, the Candu heavy-water reactor.

It has now been eight years since Crown-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) signed its last foreign or domestic Candu sales order—a 1979 agreement with Romania that resulted in the sale of five reactors. AECL spokesmen say that the long drought may be nearing an end as economic recovery pushes demand for electricity to new peaks. But executives of manufacturing firms that have supplied major components for Candu reactors say that new orders will have to come

quickly if they are to save the industry. Said Robert Donovan, president of the Cambridge, Ont., boilermaker Babcock & Wilcox Industries Ltd.: “You have to ask, is this industry going to sustain itself?”

A proposed Candu sale to Turkey fell apart last year when Ottawa refused to finance the deal. And the absence of other new contracts has forced many former suppliers of Candu parts to find other work. In 1981, Candu-related work formed 68 per cent of Babcock & Wilcox’s business; now it accounts for barely 10 per

cent of the company’s activity. And at AECL itself, 2,250 engineers and researchers have lost their jobs in the past four years, reducing employment at the company by a third.

For many companies, the decline in orders has meant that the highly specialized skills required for nuclear work are not being maintained. In Montreal, Dominion Bridge-Sulzer Inc. is without orders for the reactor cores it used to build in a specially equipped 100-foot-high concrete-and-steel assembly plant. Said Sulzer spokesman James Wilson: “Key people are being kept and re-assigned. But over time the skills simply disappear.”

Still, AECL insists that the slump is temporary, resulting from overbuilding of nuclear power plants during the 1970s and a drop in energy demand during the recession in the early 1980s.

Donald Lawson, AECL president of Candu operations, says that surging industries will soon face power shortages unless utilities again start building nuclear plants. Declared Lawson: “Ordering has to take off.” And as a result, he added, AECL could sell a reactor each year after 1990.

AECL and other Western nuclear authorities point to significant design differences between the Chernobyl reactor and those in Canada—notably the Candu’s reliance on heavy water, rather than flammable graphite, to sustain fission in the reactor. But in the wake of Chernobyl, a Gallup poll in July, 1986, found that 77 per cent of Canadians opposed further nuclear development. And there have been other setbacks for the industry since then. Last month AECL revealed that development of its Maple reactor—a small model designed to produce radioactive isotopes for researchers—was a year behind schedule and $6 million over its $16-million budget. At the same time, Ontario Hydro confirmed that repairs to four of its 16 reactors will cost $1.7 billion, nearly twice what the units cost to build in the 1970s. That provided fresh evidence for critics of the high cost of nuclear development.

Some of the industry’s opponents, such as antinuclear activist David Poch, say that it is unlikely that it can recover from its mounting problems. “The nuclear future in Ontario is dead,” said Poch, a lawyer for Toronto’s Energy Probe. “Elsewhere in Canada, nuclear is a nonstarter.” At best, he added, AECL and Candu contractors could expect to find work dismantling existing reactors. But AECL spokesmen said that they remain confident that by the end of the decade consumers will be demanding new power supplies and, in doing so, will prompt new reactor orders.

Until that time, nuclear advocates argue, Canada must keep its Candu technology alive so that it will be available to supply future energy needs. To that end they are urging governments to secure at least one nuclear sale in the next 18 months to prevent further erosion of the country’s nuclear capabilities. Said AECL’S Lawson: “We have to keep the options open.” One possibility in the near future is a second nuclear plant in New Brunswick, which the province is asking Ottawa to finance. Another would be for Ottawa to change its mind and subsidize a sale to Turkey. But with commercial demand still slack and with public distrust heightened since the Chernobyl incident, the federal government has reason to be wary of requests for aid to the faltering nuclear industry.

CHRIS WOOD

MARC CLARK

KATHRYN HARLEY

DAVID TODD