Friday, October 23, 2009

On The Future of AECL

Ironically, the one major issue that seems to be dominating the Canadian technology/political news is the one issue that I am loathe to touch with a ten foot pole.

The future of AECL has been in doubt for several months as the federal government made it clear that they intended to sell AECL to private companies. At first brush, this is not necessarily the 'death knell' that many people make it out to be.

AECL is having a terrible time marketing itself to the world for a number of reasons.

1) CANDU reactors are more expensive than other kinds of reactors.

2) The benefit that using natural uranium has been steadily decreasing over the years as the cost of enriching uranium decreased and AECL has been unable to capitalize on new fuels (like Thorium) the way it would have liked.

3) Frequent conflicts with the CNSC as changing safety regulations place them on uneven ground trying to keep up with the safety requirements placed on them. This means they have not been able to market a single standard reactor.

4) Management fiascos like the one at Point Lepreau in New Brunswick are the norm rather than the exception. (see MAPLE for another example) Doesn't matter who is to blame for the delays or what the reason is, the fact that they cannot deliver on a product in the time they say the will makes these events fiascos.

The CANDU reactor is more expensive than other reactors, but that alone shouldn't be enough to undo AECL. Neither should the changing realities about UO2. Even the conflicts with the regulator nor management fiascos on their own shouldn't bring them down. But taken together it is a potentially lethal mix.

With or without privatization, the CANDU line of reactors is nearly dead. Of the scores of new reactors being constructed or planned not one is a CANDU. Even Ontario is having trouble swallowing the cost of a new CANDU.

But one thing is for sure, the research side of AECL is in deeper trouble than the commercial side. Without any plans for new research reactors what will the research half of AECL be able to do? Spinning off the commercial CANDU end of AECL might preserve that half (or might not) but without a research reactor, the research end of AECL is doomed.

What is needed politically is clear action. The time for striking committees and getting advice should be over and the time for political willpower to push one direction or another is upon us. The longer the delay in clarity, the less likely anyone is to even buy AECL and AECL will be left to die a slow, agonizing death.

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