Could reactors withstand blast? Report that regulator will impose new safety standards may pose a big hurdle for AECL nuclear sale in Ontario
The Toronto Star
Fri 19 January 2007
Byline: Tyler Hamilton

Plans by Canada's nuclear regulator to require that international safety standards be applied to all new reactor designs could prove a major setback for federally owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Toronto Star has learned.

The rules, sources say, would likely make AECL's Candu technology a tougher sell in Ontario, which has announced its intention to build at least 1,000 megawatts of new reactors under a relatively tight schedule.

At issue is the expectation of a nuclear reactor's robustness - its ability to withstand a massive outside shock or explosion, such as the impact of a commercial jetliner. The International Atomic Energy Agency established such guidelines after Sept. 11, 2001, when jetliners brought down the World Trade Center towers.

"There have been few details, but interpretation of many knowledgeable of the IAEA and other international standards is that (AECL's) current Candu 6 reactors would not pass a strict application of those rules," states the most recent issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society's quarterly journal.

Fred Boyd, editor of the CNS Bulletin, said Linda Keen, chief executive officer of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, notified industry executives in October that she was determined to apply the standards.

"She laid down the law to the CEOs of the big utilities and AECL," Boyd said. "There's considerable frustration around the whole circuit."

Keen would not comment for this story, but commission spokesman Aurele Gervais stated in an email message that "to accomplish its mission, the CNSC draws upon internationally accepted safety standards."

The McGuinty government has made it clear that, while it would prefer to select home-grown technology, it is open to choosing a foreign reactor design, such as from France's Areva NP or U.S.-based General Electric Co., if it means getting the best deal for Ontario taxpayers.

AECL has high hopes that Ontario will choose its third-generation advanced Candu reactor, making it clear that without such a deal, future international sales of the new reactor will be in jeopardy.

But AECL is also competing against itself. Observers say its previous Enhanced Candu 6 reactor, which the company is quick to emphasize has come in "on time and on budget" in Romania, China and South Korea, is generally thought a less risky purchase for a province that won't tolerate delays.

Shawn-Patrick Stensil, an energy expert at Greenpeace Canada, said that despite spending $100 million a year on advanced Candu development, AECL is unlikely to complete its new design on time for Ontario. That makes the Candu 6 more appealing, he said.

Ontario Energy Minister Dwight Duncan said the decision on a reactor technology is a "complex undertaking" that must involve a sharing of risk between the developer, owner and operator.

"Do I have a preference at this point? No," Duncan said in an interview, at the same time expressing concern that the advanced Candu is still on the drawing board. "The one advantage the Candu 6 has is time, but it appears the nuclear regulator may have taken that away."

He acknowledged that the regulator's stricter interpretation of safety standards isn't making it any friends in Ottawa.

"As I understand it the feds aren't too happy with it."

Last month, federal Natural Resources Ministry Gary Lunn pulled the national loyalty card by emphasizing how "imperative" it was that Ontario purchase new reactors from AECL. To not sell an advanced Candu reactor in Ontario would be bad; but to not sell a Candu 6 could be devastating.

"If they don't get our order, AECL effectively becomes a Candu repair shop," said Duncan, pointing out that AECL would be worth far less if Ottawa made moves to privatize it.

"The value of the company goes down."

Privatization remains a strong possibility. Areva has had discussions with the federal government about making a strategic investment in AECL's commercial reactor business.

Ottawa maintains that AECL is not for sale, but since that report there has been rising speculation that the Harper government is exploring paths to privatize AECL and that several private-sector parties have expressed an interest.

For its part, AECL remains optimistic that it could supply the Ontario government with reactors, whether based on the latest Candu 6 design or the next-generation advanced Candu.

"We would design a Candu 6 or adapt it, if needed, to meet the standard," said Jerry Hopwood, vice-president of reactor development at AECL.

"One of the reasons we have confidence that our product can be readily adapted to any new standards is we've been building Candu 6s around the world. As international norms have developed the Candu 6s have been developing with them."

Hopwood couldn't say, however, how long it might take to "backfit" a Candu 6 to withstand an airplane crash.

"It's hard to give an exact answer on that," he said, explaining that it would involve providing a thicker concrete containment wall that is reinforced by a steel liner.

"For things like aircraft crashes, while changes might be far-reaching in terms of changing lots of design details, we would be very confident in making the design changes."