Chalk River casts shadow on Ontario's nuclear plans

The Globe And Mail: Murray Campbell - December 20, 2007

With the notable exception of people whose lives depend on radio- isotopes, the drama over the Chalk River reactor offers little more than amusing reinforcement of the feeling that the nuclear industry should be treated very, very warily.

It's different for Gerry Phillips.

As Ontario's Energy Minister, he's faced with the task of pumping up the province's nuclear effort. He's got perhaps $26.5-billion to spend to refurbish existing reactors and build new ones and the last thing he needs is a very public battle between Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and its regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Some time in the next 12 months, the government will have to decide which technology it wants for the 1,000 megawatts of new nuclear power it hopes to have in place by 2018. The choice will be between the heavy-water Candu system used in Ontario's 16 existing nuclear facilities or one of the light-water technologies used in the rest of the world.

The federal Natural Resources Minister has said it is "imperative" that AECL be awarded the contract to build Ontario's first new nuclear reactors in more than two decades. "We are not technologically neutral," he said last year.

Ontario hasn't tipped its hand about which way it's leaning. It has asked for advice from a consultant and from the publicly owned Ontario Power Generation and the private Bruce Nuclear.

Mr. Phillips is much too wily a politician to suggest that he's being influenced by the tales out of Chalk River about delayed safety improvements at the isotope-producing NRU reactor and the hopelessly delayed project to bring two successor Maple reactors on line. Asked if he finds the events a bit scary, he dodges the bullet and replies: "I'd say it differently."

And what he says repeatedly is that he knows Ontario voters will have tough questions for him no matter which technology he chooses. They've lived through cost overruns and disappointing performance in the provincial nuclear industry for years and they know about the billions of dollars of debt that was the legacy of the initial nuclear building boom.

The Energy Minister said he knows he has to try to provide reassurance about the pricing, delivery and reliability of the new nuclear plants. He acknowledges that AECL's dispute with CNSC "does put the burden of proof a little more on the government," but adds that "I would have to answer the same questions whether they had this problem or not." The saga of the Maple reactors, which were supposed to start up in the late 1990s but still have technical problems, "is all part of being able to answer the questions."

Mr. Phillips may be calm but the Chalk River controversy will cast a shadow over his deliberations, quite apart from the image of disarray in the nuclear industry that is being presented. The apparent bad blood between AECL and CNSC does not bode well for a swift licensing of the Crown corporation's enhanced Candu 6 or Advanced Candu Reactor designs. In turn, this calls into question the Energy Minister's belief that a new reactor can be in place in a decade.

Few in the electricity industry believe now that the coal plants can be shut down on schedule in 2014. A lengthy delay in getting a Candu project off the ground would guarantee the target would be missed.

Mr. Phillips said that AECL continues to be "one of the front-runners," which sounds like a retreat from the days when his predecessor, Dwight Duncan, would say that Candu was preferred if all other things were equal. Meanwhile, of course, the foreign companies, with their proven technology, are lobbying furiously for the Ontario business. Given Chalk River, will Mr. Phillips be able to resist them?

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