AECL Engineers Urge Ottawa to Protect CANDU Technology

OTTAWA — A union that represents engineers and scientists at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is warning that the sale of AECL's reactor unit to a foreign buyer could spell the end of the country's CANDU technology.

The Society of Professional Engineers and Associates, which represents more than 900 AECL engineers and scientists, is calling on the federal government to ensure that AECL's CANDU reactor technology is preserved as the Conservatives prepare to unveil their restructuring plan for the Crown corporation.

"Historically, whenever you sell a technology to a foreign country, you lose it," union vice president Michael Ivanco, who works at AECL as a scientist, said Thursday.

The union's remarks come a day after Canwest News Service reported that several domestic and foreign players in the nuclear industry are positioning themselves to make a bid for AECL's assets.

This summer, the government announced plans to split AECL in two and put its CANDU reactor business on the block. AECL's research and technology division, based in Chalk River, Ont., will likely be maintained under government ownership, although the unit's management could be contracted out to the private sector. The Chalk River laboratories produce medical isotopes used worldwide to test for cancer and other diseases.

Investment bank Rothschild has been hired to come up with recommendations for how exactly the restructuring will be implemented. The government is expected to unveil further details this fall.

Several companies, including French state-owned giant Areva and Ontario-based Bruce Power, are interested in making a play for part or all of AECL's reactor business. But companies such as Areva are more interested in promoting their own next-generation reactor technology, rather than AECL's advanced CANDU reactor.

Ivanco says that would be a shame, since the CANDU is one of Canada's "few high-tech achievements." He notes that the nuclear industry is the only major sector where Canada controls the "entire supply chain," from mining uranium, to refining it into fuel and designing reactors.

"The overriding fear as a Canadian is that we'd be bought by a foreign bidder whose main objective is basically to shut us down," he said. "If you can eliminate a competitor for peanuts, why wouldn't you do it?"

If AECL merely becomes a branch plant for a foreign firm, some of the Crown corporation's engineers and scientists could leave the country in search of more interesting work, he added.

"Once you start breaking up the engineering division piecemeal, you lose the ability to design and build," said Ivanco. "Ontario Hydro, 20 years ago, could build reactors. But they stopped building reactors and a lot of their good people got bored and left."

A spokeswoman for Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, who was out of the country, was not immediately available for comment. A government review released this summer concluded that AECL's reactor business was simply too small to compete with foreign nuclear giants with the deep pockets to spend billions developing new reactors.