Candu supporters praise federal cash for AECL

OTTAWA, CANADA - A group of Canadian companies who supply everything from manufactured parts to engineering and insurance services to the nuclear industry say federal support for a new Candu reactor is a prudent, long-term national investment.

“I dont think Canadians appreciate the significant role we could play in the world market — or indeed even the magnitude of the market that is developing,” Neil Alexander, president of the Organization of Candu Industries, said in a recent interview.

Alexander was reacting to news that Ottawa has committed another $135 million in 2009-10 to the development of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s (AECL) next-generation reactor.

“I cannot think of any other investment that will do Canadians so much good for so long into the future,” he said.

Ottawa committed $351 million to AECL in the federal budget but has refused to detail how the 2009-10 spending is allocated.

The $135 million is earmarked for development of the Advanced Candu Reactor, or ACR-1000. The next-generation reactor is the key to AECL’s future viability, say independent observers.

But it’s a public investment the Conservative government itself is refusing to confirm, defend or explain.

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt has declined repeated interview requests. And in the Commons, she responded to a Bloc question about nuclear funding by touting Canada as a world leader in “renewable energy.”

The official reticence has both proponents and opponents of the nuclear power industry wondering exactly what Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has in mind for AECL, a Crown corporation that is one of Canada’s flagship technology firms.

Liberal MP Gerry Regan was incensed that a Natural Resources department briefing he received insisted no breakdown of the AECL funding existed, but a media outlet was able to secure the numbers.

“It’s no wonder that Canadians don’t trust this government when they are not more transparent,” said Regan.

The Conservatives are currently sitting on a report they commissioned on AECL’s future — including examination of whether the Crown corporation should be privatized in whole or in part.

Alexander said his organization, which represents about 120 companies that do Candu-related business with AECL, has made a detailed economic argument to the government for investment in the new reactor. But it has heard nothing in response.

A great deal hangs on the imminent decision by the Ontario government about new reactors for the province. The ACR-1000 and a next-generation reactor from France’s Areva are the prime candidates.

Bryne Purchase, a Queen’s University professor who served as Ontario’s deputy minister of energy when the province was making key nuclear power decisions in the past, said the latest federal funding for the ACR 1000 suggests Ottawa is serious about supporting AECL for the long term.

“It could be that they’ve had that critical cabinet meeting where they’ve considered their options and decided that they’re going to have an entry into the global market for advanced nuclear technology,” said purchase.

But nuclear energy cynics, such as Shawn Patrick Stensil of Greenpeace Canada, fear the government is simply boosting AECL enough to win the Ontario bid and then sell off the profitable parts while leaving taxpayers holding the Crowns liabilities.

Whatever the Conservative government is planning, advocates say the public needs a better understanding of what’s at stake.

Last year the Tories rejected the American takeover of Canadian space technology firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., due to national security and intellectual property concerns.

The Candu suppliers group makes similar sounding arguments about AECL.

Domestic ownership, said Alexander, “is the intellectual property locally, and that then gives us control over what happens to the industry.”

He noted that Canadian firms that earned an international reputation building pumps and reactor simulators for AECL are now selling to reactor builders worldwide.

But Alexander fears Canada is losing its stature as a technology innovator, and that in turn will impact on the manufacturing base.

“We need to recover that ability to be a technology incubator and the nuclear industry is one of the classic examples where we could do that,” said Alexander. “We are already a major player in the field.”


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