AECL up for auction but West’s industries protected

Peter White

The Harper government’s reversal on the foreign takeover of PotashCorp coupled with its oilsands policies clearly demonstrate its priorities — namely, keep Western Canada happy at all costs.

With 14 seats at stake in Saskatchewan (all but one Conservative), the Conservatives are ready, willing and able to disregard their free market principles and fiscal conservatism in order to champion certain sectors of the Canadian economy — particularly if they are based in the West.

Contrast this government’s interventionist approach in the West with its laissez-faire attitude toward high-technology industries based in Ontario. We all remember the sad saga of Nortel, an Ontario-based high-tech icon. The Harper government refused any kind of intervention to help save that company, at a significant cost to Ontario’s economy.

Ontario-based politicians at all levels have been remarkably muted in defending the 30,000 plus jobs at risk as the Harper government appears poised to abandon Ontario-based Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL).

In Ottawa, only the Senate stood up to the Harper government’s privatization scheme. It took a last-minute Senate appointment to ensure the defeat of amendments that would send the deal back to the House.

At Queen’s Park, the premier has sent a letter to Harper expressing his concern but we have heard little else from him or the opposition leaders. Given that Ontario needs to build new nuclear facilities in the next few years, it is surprising how quiet the Legislature has been on this issue.

AECL, one of Canada’s largest Crown corporations, is in the process of being sold, despite the Tories’ own polling which shows that more than 70 per cent of Canadians oppose its privatization. A final decision will likely occur within weeks. Parliament and Canadians will have no say in the fate of one of Ontario’s and Canada’s most important high-tech industries.

The stakes are exceptionally high for Ontario. AECL, which produces the Candu nuclear reactor, is a pioneer and world leader in the peaceful use of nuclear technology. The Candu industry employs thousands of people in Ontario — in high-value added jobs — manufacturing specialized nuclear components and providing engineering services in support of Canadian designed Candu reactors. It’s a $6 billion plus industry annually, one of the largest in the province. While much of Ontario’s manufacturing base has been shrinking, with more and more goods now manufactured in low-wage countries in Asia, this one has been growing.

There are only a half dozen countries that have experience building reactors at home as well as offshore. Canada has been at the forefront of this industry. A loss will ripple across the economy, as the supply chain will be affected, as will universities across the country that train future nuclear scientists and engineers. It will also send a signal internationally that Canada would rather purchase its technology abroad than develop it at home.

The Harper government has made it clear that the free market will decide the future of AECL. This is the equivalent of saying, “we are content to let the Candu industry die” because the fact is, there is no such thing as a free market for nuclear reactors. Active government support is required if this thriving industry is to survive and take advantage of the growing worldwide nuclear renaissance, estimated in the trillions of dollars in the coming decades. In fact, Candu’s main competitors are wholly or partially owned by governments or are in the midst of forming government consortia.

The Harper government appears intent on letting the Candu go the way of the Avro Arrow. And while the people of Saskatchewan, led by their premier, rose up to protect their economic interests, the people of Ontario remain eerily silent as yet another major high-technology industry based in this province is ready to slip away.

Peter White is a senior safety analyst employed at AECL.