Ontario’s Nuclear Workers have Nothing to Fear

It’s been reported that on February 21 about 100 boxes of bid documents for the great Ontario reactor circus were submitted by the reactor vendors. They were boxes of paper but in the present economic and political climate they may as well be boxes of bricks or radiator parts since the decision must reflect the current realities.


Ontario’s cohort of highly qualified nuclear scientists and engineers are the pawns in this process and no doubt it’s causing them anxiety. Having been through uncertainty about the future a few times myself I can well appreciate their feelings.  The situation isn’t helped by the sucking and blowing of nuclear industry Pooh-Bahs doing the Chicken Little routine about how the sky will fall if AECL doesn’t win. It may be that their own jobs would be in jeopardy in that event but not the jobs of those with technical expertise.  


Political reality says the AECL ACR is likely to win. No matter how long they continue to drag their feet on the decision, as the recession deepens it’s increasingly difficult for the Ontario government to do anything other than accept the bid of the local guys.  The politicians can’t afford to get in the same sort box that the government lottery company got into by selecting Mercedes Benz cars as prizes at a time when the car industry is in such great trouble in Ontario.  Selecting the ACR also puts off the expenditure of real money by the provincial government until at least 2012 when the details of the ACR will be firmed up. In the meantime the feds will be funding the completion of the design. Even better, the current provincial government would likely be out of office and another government would have to deal with any downstream consequences of this choice.


Suppose the ACR doesn’t win. At “worst” our nuclear people might end up working for one or the other of two world-class multinational nuclear companies: AREVA or Westinghouse. Both already have several orders for their reactors in other countries. It’s easy to see where the winning company would get the nuclear people they need to build their reactors in Canada. Of course, the inevitable next step for the winner would be to buy the assets of AECL, the main one being its highly skilled work force.  Current employees would likely end up with higher pay, better leadership and literally a world of opportunity from which to choose their future.


Skilled nuclear workers have nothing to fear.  The very fact that two reactors of some type will be built in Ontario and maybe others elsewhere in the country is sufficient to ensure their future for decades to come. This even without taking into account the 10’s of billions of dollars worth of refurbishment work slated for the existing CANDU reactors. There is no need to be concerned. The employment future is bright for Ontario’s nuclear workers whatever the outcome of the competition.




Posted in Policy. 8 Comments »

Uranium Enrichment for Canada

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.


This line from Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire may well sum up Canada’s position a few years after new reactors requiring enriched uranium, and that’s all of the designs being considered, are built with no Canadian enrichment plant to supply them.


Uranium enrichment could be strategically important for Canada in terms of energy self-sufficiency and sovereignty. At one extreme some would argue that for this reason Canada should not build nuclear reactors that use enriched uranium unless it has its own enrichment plant pointing out that Canada is not reliant on other states for its energy supply now, and should not be in future. On the other hand, Canada is dependent on other countries for vital materials and finished goods of many kinds and enriched uranium would simply be another.


Some articles have ready appeared in the press saying that the Canadian government has already made overtures to the other members of NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) to negotiate permission for an enrichment plant.  The NSG claims to look after the Non-Proliferation Treaty but by granting permission to open nuclear trade with India, it seems its main interest has shifted to creating commercial opportunities for its members rather than preventing weapons proliferation. If that’s the case then it might be difficult for Canada to gain approval from other members of the NSG to compete against them in the profitable enrichment business. No doubt   commercial objections to Canadian enrichment would emerge wrapped in the now very tattered flag of non-proliferation.


For the two foreign competitors for the Ontario reactors, AREVA and Westinghouse, a serious issue is to create spending in Canada to offset the higher percentage of foreign content in their products compared to AECL. The Saskatchewan government has not only been toying with the idea of purchasing reactors but has also expressed interest in adding value to its uranium mining industry. Therefore, both Saskatchewan and Ontario (if it could ever get its act together) might have leverage in their negotiations with foreign reactor suppliers to include an offsetting enrichment plant as part of a reactor purchase deal. This would work particularly well for AREVA since they are already constructing a new enrichment plant in the US with technology licensed from Urenco and they have also been an important player in Canadian uranium mining for many years.


Of course, if the ACR-1000 is selected as part of the new build mix it would have more domestic content than its competitors but then we might end up in a situation where we were short of heavy water on top of having no domestic source for enriched uranium.


In my opinion enrichment should be a purely commercial undertaking or at most a private-public partnership. Personally I’d like to see enrichment as value-added to our uranium exports that stays in Canada but this is a business decision that has to be made by the uranium industry.