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.