More on the fate of Chalk River labs

If it wasn’t already in trouble enough, the media reported a “near miss” at the Chalk River Laboratory (CRL). It seems an operator at the NRU reactor erroneously shut off a cooling system but the error was immediately corrected by a manager who happened to be in the control room at the time. The only consequences were the doubts that this incident created about operator training and the overall safety culture at CRL.

The resulting negative media coverage comes at a very bad time. The government is looking for a commercial company to operate CRL. I suggested in a post here almost a year ago that a good solution would be to return the labs to the National Research Council (NRC), their original owner in the 1940’s. However, it turned out that I was wrong being much too optimistic about NRC’s ability to navigate in the troubled waters of the current government’s attitudes towards science, and basic research in particular. I read that NRC has been ordered to be “open for business” and it should serve the needs of industry. This is a depressing mantra of knuckle draggers of all political stripes in response to the issue of basic research. I won’t expiate on this theme any further other to say that right now NRC isn’t a feasible refuge for CRL.

It seems inevitable that we will see a commercial company running CRL. I can’t help being reminded of the recent “sale” of the reactor operation of AECL in Mississauga by SNC-Lavalin. Is there anyone out there that thinks in retrospect that this was a good idea? I’ll just confine myself to this question since there are legal strictures that prevent my commenting on the various accusations made against SNC-Lavalin executives for alleged unlawful activities. These unfortunate developments also make off shore sales of CANDU even more unlikely that they were before.

My understanding is that a company is being sought to operate CRL rather than to buy it. I’m sure there is an ideological component in this decision. The political right, now in power in Canada, believes that only private enterprise can operate businesses correctly whereas the left, of course, believes that only governments can. It’s like assuming that more accountants can ensure accountability but they can only document how much is spent foolishly rather than preventing dumb expenditures.

This model of government ownership with commercial operation has been used at US national laboratories for decades. Most of the R&D funding for them still comes from US federal government departments and agencies. In Canada this should be even more the case than in the US. The source of CRL’s funds will overwhelmingly remain the government of Canada and it’s mainly the magnitude of the annual budget that’s in question. To a large extent (80% or more?) the CRL budget must be labour costs. I hope I’m wrong but the main task of the commercial company would likely be drastic staff reductions. The advantages of doing it this way would be that the government could claim that the reductions were done by arm’s length “experienced” business people rather than by the government itself.

Let’s face it, there’s not much R&D of primary importance going on at CRL through no fault of the employees. There will be even less in the future without a new research reactor after NRU closes for good. CRL is very vulnerable to personnel cuts. One thing that could be done is to find new tenants for some of the lab. Is there any other nuclear-related group that could be located at CRL?

Yes. How about moving a large part of the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) operation to CRL? They are now mainly located in Ottawa office buildings and I can see no particular objection to them being at CRL. It might even give them more exposure to nuclear than they now have (couldn’t resist the pun).

There are good reasons for doing this. Governments in the past have decentralized federal activities by moving them out of Ottawa for example Revenue Canada to PEI and NRCan’s CANMET labs to Hamilton. Certainly there would be whining about inconvenience and more travel effort on the part of CNSC staff. On the other hand housing would be much cheaper and they wouldn’t be that far from Ottawa. Commission staff is located at Pickering, Bruce, Darlington and Pt Lepreau with as the CNSC claims no “regulatory capture” and they could even arrange to have a small independent group devoted to regulating CRL. With so many “cops” buzzing around the hive it might also improve the safety culture at CRL.

I don’t really see any serious objection to moving most of the 900 CNSC people to CRL. Some wouldn’t want to move and buying some of them out would be an added benefit in reducing the personnel bloat at the Commission.

Think about the CNSC idea and if you like it, contact Cheryl Gallant, the CRL area MP. If Hamilton MP David Sweet could swing the politics of moving CANMET to Hamilton then she would have a good chance of giving a badly needed boost to her constituency by moving the CNSC to Renfrew County. The two MPs should compare notes and I suspect the CNSC move to CRL could be done fairly easily if approved by the PMO.

It’s easy to forecast the response of bureaucrats to the idea. They will try hard to stall any CNSC move to CRL on the grounds that studies of the lab’s future are underway, nothing can be done for years and besides they didn’t come up with the idea. Personally, I doubt that they will come up with any better idea if they continue to deny the need for a new research reactor. The advantage politicians have is they can tell the bureaucrats what the results of the study should be and when it should be concluded. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

2 Responses to “More on the fate of Chalk River labs”

  1. crf Says:

    Moving Chalk River lads to NRC might not be bad if the operation was modeled like TRIUMF (funded through NRC, but without input/interference from NRC). (Some other parts of NRC might want to go to the TRIUMF model too.)

  2. Alex tworkowski Says:

    Very sorry to hear of the obstacles at Chalk River. Truly believe that nuclear power is the future of energy. Canada, with it’s CANDU reactors was very respected. I don’t believe the US is really serious about nuclear power. Washington is populated by professional backsliders. We’re really stuck, but i always thought Canada was out there with CANDU. Very sorry……s


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