Beleaguered industry gets new lease on life

The Globe and Mail
Murray Campbell
15 June 2006

As it happens, the crème of Canada's nuclear industry was meeting in Toronto this week when Energy Minister Dwight Duncan confirmed a badly kept secret and said Ontario would be spending billions of dollars in their neck of the woods.

The smiles that broke out as the news spread were so dazzling that they could have powered the city for a few weeks. The joy came from the fact that Mr. Duncan was promising to spend up to $46-billion to refurbish existing nuclear plants and to build new reactors. But there was also relief because it was the first bit of good news that the beleaguered industry has had in decades. It was a Sally Field moment — they like us, they really like us.

“A lot of people are in this industry because they're passionate about the technology,” said Jeremy Whitlock, a past president of the Canadian Nuclear Society, which was holding its annual meeting in a downtown hotel. “But at the same time you've got to have very thick skin because you wake up every day and read about how you're killing babies and that sort of thing. In that sense . . . there's this feeling [with the announcement] that somebody is standing behind us.”

All the major global nuclear companies had displays at the three-day society meeting, making pitches and handing out souvenirs and brochures that only a physicist could understand. Areva, the French company, was touting its new 1,600-megawatt reactor. U.S. giants Westinghouse and General Electric were touting their advanced units, while Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. was pushing its hometown advantage.

The prospect of Ontario spending billions to renew its nuclear program — through refurbishments and construction of 1,000 new megawatts — has the industry in as much of a tizzy as fissionphiles can summon.

“It is, for sure, a big investment piece for us,” said Murray Elston, a former Ontario cabinet minister who is now president of the Canadian Nuclear Association. Paul Fehrenbach, an AECL vice-president, rejected the suggestion that a feeding frenzy is looming (“I think it will be a little more restrained than that”), but he agreed that “there's going to be some good competition.”

Ontario is joining what seems to be a worldwide upsurge of interest in nuclear power resulting from concerns about pollution-linked global warming and, in the United States, energy security.

There are 441 reactors operating in 31 countries, providing 17 per cent of the world's electricity. Another 27 units are under construction, 38 being planned and 113 proposed. Most of the activity is in Asia and Eastern Europe, although Areva is building a reactor in Finland.

Mr. Duncan said this week that he would prefer to deal with AECL, but that he would review other bids. The Ontario program isn't particularly large by global standards, since most of the expenditure will go to refurbishing — if it's practical — the existing fleet of 16 reactors.

Last winter, AECL organized a “Team Candu” that includes itself and its suppliers in anticipation of the Ontario announcement. It desperately needs the deal because it would be a blow if the second-biggest Canadian government turned its back. To this end, it is showcasing its Candu 6 reactor, which is in operation in seven countries, and its third-generation ACR-100 1,200-MW unit, which is still on the drawing board.

“Team Candu will deliver on schedule, on budget in Ontario,” said senior vice-president David Torgerson.

GE has signed up with the Candu consortium and likely won't enter a bid, but Westinghouse and Areva will get involved. “We're very, very interested,” said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. “We see Canada as a logical extension of our capability” in the United States, added Steve Hamilton of Areva (which has offices in Canada).

Candu offers a different technology from its counterparts — using natural uranium and heavy water rather than enriched uranium and light water. There is no reason the two technologies couldn't sit side by side on an existing Candu site, but it would create problems.

For a start, Canadian regulatory authorities don't have the expertise to oversee a non-Candu application.

That's all down the road, however. For now, it's enough for Canada's nuclear corps to know that, at long last, the gravy boat is coming in to dock.