AECL a $30 billion sinkhole, says Harper spokesman

OTTAWA, CANADA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief spokesman says Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., is a "dysfunctional," $30 billion "sinkhole" that will not get any more funding for a new research reactor.

The new, tough tone from the Conservatives comes as a respected nuclear physicist criticizes what he calls a "horribly short-sighted" government decision that effectively pulls the plug on a half-century of multi-faceted Canadian research at AECL's Chalk River laboratories.

Harper said Canada will get out of the medical isotope business when AECL's 52-year-old National Research Universal reactor gives up the ghost, likely by 2016.

The decision has implications far beyond isotope production, physicist Dominic Ryan of McGill University's Centre for the Physics of Materials said.

Not only has the NRU provided the research base for Canada's nuclear energy industry, it's been a workhorse for neutron-beam research on such non-nuclear applications as analyzing booster rocket welds on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle and certifying steel safe for bridge-building.

"Other nations are investing in research reactors," Ryan, the president of Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, said.

"And we're just talking about closing the darn things down – the only one we've got.... It really is annoying."

The institute, which represents more than 400 scientists who use neutron beam research, proposes replicating the NRU with an updated version. But Kory Teneycke, Harper's communication director, made it emphatically clear Ottawa has no interest in such a project.

"The government has put $30 billion into AECL over its history and it's been one of the largest sinkholes of government money probably in the history of the government of Canada," Teneycke said.

"So I don't think describing it as an unmitigated success is accurate."

He added there's been "well-founded, sharp criticism of the history of AECL.... I don't think we're going out on a limb to say it has been a fairly dysfunctional place."

Last year, the Tories cancelled two AECL medical isotope reactors at Chalk River, called MAPLES, after they went hundred of millions over budget and still failed to pass inspections. The MAPLES were never designed as multi-purpose research replacements for the NRU.

"We are not going to make further investments into the MAPLE – which is the research reactor project at AECL," said Teneycke.

As for another government-built research reactor, that too was shot down. "I don't think anyone is looking at giving a couple of billion dollars more to AECL at this point for a new project," said Teneycke.

"What we're focused on is trying to restructure AECL right now."

Teneycke later backed away from his earlier comments, saying he "spoke in haste and in error" and should've limited remarks to the MAPLES and not AECL as a whole.


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