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.

A Strike at Chalk River – Really?

I can’t believe what I’m reading about a strike by CRL’s scientists and engineers. It seems that they can go on strike July 17 but I find it hard to credit that they would actually be dumb enough to do it.

I’m sure they must have thought about the consequences but it’s hard to see what they hope to gain. The federal government is determined to cut Public Service costs and has a generally negative attitude toward AECL and all things nuclear. It’s no exaggeration to say the government has little sympathy for unions in general as shown by their rapid back-to-work actions in many recent strikes. To complete this grim picture I also have the impression that the Canadian public is becoming increasingly disillusioned with trade unions especially those in the public sector.

According to the union the contract offer from management might lead to salary decreases in a few years. Simply based on my interpretation of the government’s current policies I’m afraid CRL is in for significant job cuts in the near future. Justifying the size and scope of CRL’s current programs is already difficult in Ottawa. Taking future salary hits might go some way to prevent R&D programs closing down with consequent job losses.  In the medium term CRL employees need to keep their heads down and hope for a change of government.

What leverage would the strikers have? As I understand it isotope production (while it lasts) is classified as an essential service that wouldn’t be affected.  Some nuclear waste services could be a problem but management personnel could direct the trucks to some interim storage area. On the other hand I don’t see Ottawa bureaucrats wringing their hands over a slowdown in the pace of nuclear R&D. SNC’s operations would not suffer much nor would OPG sympathize since both have their own layoffs underway. Unfortunately, nobody with any clout is going to care much about how long a strike lasts. The picket lines would be there for a long time.

A strike would be a disastrous misread of today’s realities and the next news I want to read is that the threat of a strike is over.

More Glory Days for Chalk River?

For reasons that don’t matter now I was prompted to think about what will happen to the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) while on a cruise ship passing Devil’s Island.  Unlike that place I have fond memories of CRL.

When I arrived in 1968 CRL was still in its Glory Days.  Many excellent scientific programs continued notably at the NRU reactor and much engineering R&D was done in support of the newly hatched CANDU reactor concept. CRL scientists and engineers were very active in the governance of Canada’s learned societies and were prominent at national and international conferences. CRL was recognized as an incubator of highly qualified personnel and many left to become university faculty.

At that time W.B. Lewis, the father of the CANDU reactor, was promoting the ING project at CRL. ING was to be a giant accelerator producing the large neutron flux necessary to make fissile fuel to top up the thermal breeder capabilities of CANDU. The idea was that ING supporting a fleet of CANDU’s would eliminate the possibility that running out of the then known uranium resources would thwart the great expansion of nuclear power envisaged by Lewis and many others. ING was cancelled by Pierre Trudeau when he came to power that same year. It is arguable whether ING could ever have been made to work but in retrospect the cancellation of ING took away the last future vision for CRL.

When I left in 1996 the decline of CRL was reaching its climax in a process of decay that had started in the mid 1960’s. The steady erosion over the foregoing years culminated in the cancellation or transfer of the best scientific programs under the government program review process of that era.  A dismal succession of weak and ineffectual leaders tried to preserve the labs through dubious commercialization  schemes and strived to eliminate “curiosity oriented research” because they thought it was what the government wanted them to do. The problem was that most of the management simply didn’t understand how the Ottawa bureaucracy worked and those who did understand didn’t stick around enough to make a difference.

Of course the CRL site cannot be closed.  We’ve made such a mess we couldn’t possibly leave it in its current state.   Decommissioning and cleanup activities will go on decades if not centuries and it remains the main site for Canada’s medical and industrial radioactive wastes.

Everyone (except maybe the federal government) has concluded that the only thing that will restore CRL to its former glory is a new world class research reactor to replace NRU.  National laboratories in other countries have thrived on excellent new facilities. The SNS at Oak Ridge, the NIF at Lawrence Livermore, and the Jules Horowitz reactor at Cadarache are recent examples of facilities that have given new purpose to their host national laboratories.

To sell a new reactor it must have a meaningful and nationally important R&D program. The NRU reactor closure scheduled for 2016 will mark the end of isotope production and associated R&D.   Neutron scattering would attract scientists in that field but it’s a relatively small community.  With the Advanced CANDU Reactor thankfully now cancelled there isn’t likely to be much in the way of reactor development going on with the exception of perhaps some EC6 fuel tests and a bit of thorium research.

My own assessment is there is unlikely to be any further significant development of the CANDU concept and more sales of CANDU offshore are improbable. I can’t see any use for a new reactor to support the refurbishment projects now the heart of our nuclear industry. In the last decade or so an increasing nuclear research capability has been developed in Canadian universities and recent events in Saskatchewan for instance show that this trend will continue.  Therefore, if you need people doing R&D at computer screens you don’t need to do it at CRL.  It’s not clear to me what could be done at a new research reactor to justify the large expense in building it.

As for management, some have suggested that a private company could better manage CRL along the same lines as the US national labs. I don’t see that hiring a private company to manage it would contribute much since the strategic vision needs to come from within the government.

My solution would be to return CRL to the National Research Council of Canada (NRCC) fold from which it emerged in its earliest days. I admire NRCC management for skillfully keeping their organization viable and at times thriving for what must now be getting on for a century. They have proven expert at navigating through the shoals of government bureaucracy and they understand the value of R&D and even know how to sell curiosity oriented research to the government. Moving CRL to NRCC is not such a radical solution. The neutron scattering group at CRL has been run by NRCC since the 1990’s and NRCC has even been promoting the need for a new research reactor.

I do hope solutions can be found because there is nothing I’d like to see more than return of CRL to its Glory Days.

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.

Taking AECL to the Bank

A reporter called me last week to ask if I had an advance copy of the National Bank Financial’s study of AECL. I don’t and it has only resurfaced in the press in the last few days who say it is now completed.  

Why has a bank been commissioned to do a study of a nuclear organization? To me it’s like the Toronto Maple Leaf organization investigating wheat exports or Wal-Mart studying the national needs for chamber music groups. Perhaps, I’m out of touch and some sort of “fresh eyes for a fresh look” policy now prevails in government. I’m sure National Bank Financial is a worthy organization and maybe, the explanation is simply that money is involved. However, no amount of financial wizardry can change the basic facts.

There have been many studies of AECL over the years and I can guess like all the others this new one is focussed on the possibilities for selling all or part of AECL. Let’s consider how this might go. AECL’s business can be roughly divided into four groups.

Legacy – This is a cute name sometimes used for all the radioactive junk (facilities and materials) left over from decades of research at AECL’s Chalk River and Whiteshell laboratories. Chalk River is also responsible for storing the waste from nuclear medicine across the country.  Many varieties of wastes have to be processed, managed and monitored. Buildings and facilities including reactors have to be decommissioned and put into safe condition. This is a formidable task that will require a great deal of cash and some large fraction of this century to accomplish. In my opinion no private business would want to buy into these huge historic liabilities. 

Isotopes – The NRU regulatory imbroglio and the MAPLE reactor farce have put AECL’s role in isotope production in doubt. With the NRU reactor rapidly nearing the end of its life and the construction of replacement facilities (the MAPLEs) abandoned, it seems that in a few years Chalk River will no longer be able to make medical isotopes. This appears to be the basis of a lawsuit MDS has brought against AECL. I’d suggest the transfer of the isotope business from AECL to MDS-Nordion in the late 1980’s is a case study in how not to privatize a government activity. The government of the day removed AECL’s only profitable operation and forced it to substantially subsidize MDS by means of a long-term low-cost isotope supply contract. To say the least this caused a lot of problems. I view the current isotope situation as an unavoidable consequence of this bungled privatization. Under these circumstances, I can’t see anyone wanting to buy the isotope business.

Reactor Sales – In other posts on this blog I haven’t been optimistic about the chances of AECL selling its ACR-1000 as the new reactor type for Ontario. You may not agree with me but less controversial is that the export prospects for this reactor aren’t very rosy. China and Korea have already purchased CANDUs and although they have performed well, neither country shows any sign of wanting more of them. India has been building its own version of the CANDU, sometimes jokingly called the “INDU”, for many years. So it would appear the three fastest growing Asian markets are unlikely. AECL made an abortive foray into the US market a few years ago and last year withdrew itself from the competition for new UK reactors to concentrate on domestic sales. Maybe the ACR has prospects in places like Jordan and Indonesia? I believe this part of AECL’s business can only find a private buyer if AECL wins in Ontario.   

Reactor Repairs – This sector of AECL’s business is thriving. CANDU reactors need extensive refurbishment including retubing after 25 to 30 years of operation. Right now, AECL is involved in the refurbishment of two reactors at Bruce Power, one in New Brunswick, the first CANDU in Korea and most likely the Gentilly II reactor in Quebec. Each reactor refurbishment is an engineering job worth $1-2 billion.  CANDUs due for refurbishment in the next five years include four in Pickering B, four in Bruce B, four at Darlington  and perhaps a few of the exported reactors. The potential order book looks to be worth $15-30 billion. Clearly this is the piece of AECL private investors would want to have.

 As I see it, the big mistake would be to sever the profitable Repair business from the rest in order to claim some degree of privatization for ideological reasons.  This was the dumb approach taken with the isotope business and it “ended in tears” as a former boss of mine liked to say.

The issue of whether AECL has a future and what it will be is being watched very closely by graduating students. Is this a good time to join AECL? My advice to them is that we need nuclear power but we need to do it right.  

By the way, does anyone know on whose behalf Compas is doing its survey of expert opinions about AECL? Questions such as “Is AECL safe?” make it somewhat strange.  It can’t be the National Bank if their report is indeed completed.  Is yet another study of AECL underway?