AECL: the fading of the light.

I was stunned to read the recent quotes from the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications about AECL. He is reported to have said that AECL is “dysfunctional”, “a sinkhole” into which governments have poured “30 billion dollars” and that it will receive no additional funding to build a new research reactor. I can’t recall ever seeing such open condemnation of a government agency at the highest level. It used to be extraordinary for such opinions to be expressed openly. Even if some individuals in previous governments may well have felt that way about AECL, they didn’t go public with their feelings. In some sense it makes me cringe.


Of course, what’s happening is the government is distancing itself from AECL, now about to be thrown under the bus. The Maple fiasco and the breakdown of NRU which the Maples were intended to replace have caused such a public outcry about the now restricted supply of medical isotopes that the government can no longer afford to consume its political capital supporting AECL. 


The plan to “restructure” AECL as announced according to the National Bank study is to sell the reactor repair and sales businesses and keep what remains of the Chalk River R&D effort. However, dedicated R&D, backed by a research reactor comparable to NRU, is absolutely essential to the success of a nuclear power system. In particular, a new and untried reactor such as the ACR-1000 would need exactly this capability for example to investigate component failures, test safety concepts and develop new fuels. Maintaining and improving that sort of strong R&D capability is a primary reason why development of a Generation III+ reactor such as the ACR costs billions of dollars. Clearly Canada isn’t willing to spend that kind of money on the ACR. In particular, no potential purchaser would want to buy an ACR with no assured R&D backup and thus, in effect the restructuring is the end of the ACR.


In such circumstances the media predictably trot out that well-worn Canadian icon, the Avro Arrow but it’s not a good analogy. The CANDU has been “flying” for about 50 years and will be with us for decades to come in terms of refurbished reactors. Therefore, the CANDU is not like the Arrow, seemingly cut off before it had a chance to prove itself, but rather a technology that has been heavily supported by Canada for decades. The issue is whether to extend the technology to another level, i.e. the ACR, or to rejoin the world mainstream with an advanced light water reactor.  As discussed elsewhere in this blog, there are arguments on both sides of that issue.


The fundamental problem with AECL has been a series of very poor decisions over the last 15-20 years. The other day, I happened across an internal AECL memo from 1994 announcing that it had been decided that NRU would not get a new calandria (essentially an extensive rebuild). Rather AECL would embark on the Maples for isotope production and would not need an all purpose reactor of the NRU type.  There was even a suggestion to build a ridiculously complicated experimental reactor with two separate but interacting cores to replace NRU; thankfully that was not attempted. I can remember during those halcyon days of the China CANDU project  that many engineers from Sheridan Park were arguing that they could use the Halden reactor in Norway for any reactor R&D they might need.  As it turned out, that single 1994 decision not to rebuild NRU has turned out to have had momentous repercussions notably the impending demise of AECL as it once was.

5 Responses to “AECL: the fading of the light.”

  1. sami Says:

    Let me start by posing couple of questions; by what percentage first Pickering-A build up costs exceeded the budgeted amount? Pickering-B; Bruce A, and Bruce B ? you will be surprised to find the amount for Pick-A was almost on budget and the picture starts to get darker moving forward. The difference is politics and business interests began to intertwine with science and technology priorities. Decisions were taken by politician and when the consequences appeared to look ugly the blame it on the research organization who can’t think business!!.

    I left Darlington separately since the picture gets uglier. In the middle of its construction politicians couldn’t confront public fear with scientific evidences and AECB assurance that Chernobyl couldn’t be repeated with CANDU design. Instead they stopped constructing Darlington and initiated a committee to “examine CANDU safety” and assure the public (i.e. buy time to let the public cool down). By then loads of purchased supplies sat idle with no constructions, contracts were cancelled , penalties paid., .etc. Then Darlington was built almost 2 years behind and of course excessive amount of over budget. Of course politician blamed the nuclear industry for not passing basic math tests. The picture even got uglier, When Darlington started up, the governing rule at the time was to increase the price per KW –h by the small amount to start paying the interest on the borrowed investment fund, after the site is completely built and started to deliver power. The NDP government at the time , froze the price, and the corporate debt started to rise, maintenance works for all nuclear sites were put on the shelves for at least five years. Then when performance started to get uglier, Mike Harris ‘s government invited American consultants to tell us what is wrong with our nuclear units , and of course blame our technical scientists and engineers for being ignorant and allowing the units performance to deteriorate that badly, and of course blame them for the added costs.

    Now, can you see how the AECL , NRU, and the new Nuclear fiasco played by the politicians ? Same dirty game, different faces. Yes it is different than the Avro Arrow story It was simpler then people didn’t asked too many questions, now it is much uglier picture. The system that is closely facing same dirty political game is “Medicare”. God help us.

  2. Randal Leavitt Says:

    I have heard that countries get the government they deserve. That is a harsh outlook that essentially blames the victims, but for me there is something true in there. I think the idea can also be shifted over to other domains such as energy harvesters. Canada will end up with the kinds of new reactors that we deserve, which looks like it might be none at all. I talk to ordinary people about reactors fairly often and my guess is that less than one in ten thousand have even the vaguest notion of how a reactor works. We are a nation that prefers violent video games to studying physics, that prefers casinos to careful wealth husbandry, so it is not surprising when our public acts against its own self interest and punishes politicians who show even the slightest favoritism to nuclear power. Dont expect anything optimistic from Canada until we have huge rallies in the streets demanding that dozens of new reactors be built immediately. The public will have to figure this out before the politicians will do anything in this area. Ill start to hope when I see all the physics and math books checked out of the libraries. We are going to get what we deserve, what we have merited, what we are capable of.

    AECL has to begin shipping Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors immediately. That is similar to telling GM to ship electric cars. How many smacks between the eyes will AECL need to wake up in this new world?

  3. Steve Aplin Says:

    You could be forgiven for wondering if the government has been Stockholmed by anti-nuclear greens, because that $30-billion-in-subsidies line sounds exactly like them.

    The correct, and obvious, response is: “yeah, but the subsidies have paid off because CANDUs have produced a lot more than $30 billion worth of clean electricity, and in Ontario alone they earn around $1 million every three hours.”

    When the federal government, proud owner of AECL, starts reading out anti-nuke press releases, can we say this is another failure of strategic communication on the part of the industry? It is tempting to say yes, but Sami’s and Randal’s responses point up the difficulties the industry faces on the communication front. It ain’t easy.

    And Sami—here we are, watching Darlington: The Sequel, and the project is already delayed because of politics and shovels haven’t even hit the ground. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    Yeah, this is going to be ugly. A horror film in slow motion.

  4. Dr Sing. Says:

    Current new build is NOT a repeat of Darlington (no $$$ spent yet, no contract), precisely because Ontario put the project on hold until conditions are more favourable.

    Everytime AECL is mentioned, it sounds like they’re quarelling with the government. But, they are a crown corporation. They ARE the government.

    Some people reiterate that AECL has been poorly funded over decades – well what then has AECL used the money on? What was the return on that money: finished CANDU’s that are denied comission license? incomplete (every changing) ACR1000 design? AECL was not contracted by BrucePower to work on refurb for free. To the contrary, with so many refurbs in progress, AECL should have huge revenue streams. Even cost of isotope production is covered by MDS.

    The biggest problem with NRU thats overlooked is that its the only research reactor in Canada. Cyclatrons, MAPLEs and foreing sources can be used for isotopes. But, once decomissioned, what will AECL and legions of scientists do for materials research? (sadly, the answer is very likely move South)

    “AECL has to begin shipping Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors immediately”
    Although “LFTR” concept was proven in 50’s in USA, years of extensive testing is required for commercialization: Hasteloy-N durability, chemical processing to remove Pa, chemical processing of fission gases, tests to determine best choice of salt carrier, and single or double fluid design.

    However, I am a firm believer that current surge of new builds will be a “fizzle” that will mainly replace retiring power plants, and that real renessance will begin once actinide burning closed fuel cycle Gen4 concepts take off. In 20-30 years, with diminishing oil reserves, as well as proven Uranium reserves, there will be a higher price incentive to reprocess, closed-fuel cycle or switch to Thorium.

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