Feds announce major shakeup of nuclear agency
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Thursday, May 28, 2009 6:19PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 18, 2012 11:00PM EDT
The federal government announced Thursday a major shakeup of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
Ottawa plans to sell AECL's nuclear reactor business to the private sector, in a bid to boost worldwide sales of its CANDU reactors.
The government wants to have the Crown corporation's nuclear reactor operations run by people in the business community, instead of bureaucrats.
Under the restructuring, the agency will be split into two companies: separating the CANDU operations and the troubled National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River, Ont.
The government will also bring in a private sector partner to manage the aging and problem-plagued Chalk River facility, which was shut down May 15 for the third time in less than two years.
Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt said splitting up AECL is necessary because the Crown corporation is currently trying to serve two separate mandates and falling short on both counts.
"In the past number of years, those two sides have not been working well together," she said, adding both sides have been missing out on deals and key projects.
Raitt said the demand for nuclear energy will rise globally in the coming years and Canada hopes to benefit from it.
"The best chance ... to take advantage of this nuclear renaissance is to divide the two of them and seek global participation," Raitt told CTV's Power Play on Thursday.
But since building and servicing reactors is so expensive, Raitt said Canada must bring partners on board.
"The Canada taxpayer just can't carry that load by themselves, in order to compete internationally."
When asked if the shakeup is part of an asset sale to help balance Ottawa's $50-billion budget shortfall, Raitt said "this is purely about bolstering the industry and getting it ready for future prosperity."
The restructuring comes after a nearly two-year review and could also bring billions of dollars into government coffers.
According to a nuclear medicine expert, Ottawa's plan is a positive step.
Dr. Christopher O'Brien from the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine said a shakeup at AECL should have occurred more than a year ago when the facility showed repeated signs of trouble.
O'Brien said it's "frustrating" that a government plan to rectify Chalk River's problems has taken nearly two years to surface, but he added the new plan is a step in the right direction.
"Anything we can do to maintain that infrastructure and the narrow lines of (isotope) supply ... is a good thing," he told CTV News Channel on Thursday.
O'Brien said government bureaucrats aren't "experts in the management of nuclear reactors" and that Canada's plan to privatize the business end of manufacturing medical isotopes has "precedent" in other countries.
For example, O'Brien pointed to medical isotope production at Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is a public facility managed by the private sector.
He stressed that as long as the supply of medical isotopes is secure, it's "irrelevant" who runs the program.
The announcement comes two weeks after the Ontario government tapped AECL as the lead bidder to build two new nuclear reactors in the province.
The key to AECL's future hangs on winning that contract, which is worth $28 billion.
Ottawa also needs to do something about the faulty 50-year-old reactor at Chalk River, which provides at least a third of the world's medical isotopes used in imaging tests.
A heavy water leak shut down the reactor two weeks ago, and the agency says Chalk River will be out of commission for at least three months.
Senior officials have told CTV News that the reactor is unfixable.
Linda Keen, the former president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said it isn't yet clear if Ottawa wants to sell-off the entire corporation or simply attract investors.
Keen, who was fired in 2008 as the head of Canada's nuclear safety watchdog for her handling of the Chalk River shutdown, added that the real question is whether it's too late for the country's nuclear industry to catch up with international competitors like General Electric.
"The market has gone so fast, and one of the questions that's going to be in everybody's mind is, 'what's left to grab?'"
With files from Canadian Press