AECL: Will anyone want to buy it?

Friday, August 14, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. can’t seem to get a break.

Its reactor leaks. Its projects are overdue. No one seems keen on its cutting-edge technology – at least not as much as they were a few years ago.

In May, shortly after Chalk River’s latest problems appeared, Ottawa put AECL’s future into the hands of N.M. Rothschild and Sons, which is to deliver a restructuring plan and financial advice this fall.

Can AECL be sold off wholesale? In pieces? The most pressing question, says Bryne Purchase, a professor of public policy at Queen’s University, is whether there will be anything the private sector will be interested in buying.

“Aside from the refurbishment business, which doesn’t seem to be going that well anyway, what could you possibly be privatizing? … There’s nothing to sell. There’s no business.”

The Crown corporation, threatened with restructuring for years, finally seems primed to be taken off Ottawa’s hands and transferred, in some form, to the private sector.

But Prof. Purchase, a former deputy minister in the Ontario Finance Ministry, says it may not be that easy to find a company willing to shoulder the risk.

“You’d almost have to give this thing away. … The risks are going to have to be underwritten by governments.”

Concerns about what a restructured AECL would look like, along with the multi-billion-dollar sticker shock attached to AECL’s bid on a pair of new reactors at Ontario’s Darlington site, were enough to make the province shelve new nuclear projects for the foreseeable future last month.

AECL is behind schedule and over budget on projects it already has under way refurbishing reactors at Point Lepreau in New Brunswick and Bruce Power’s Ontario generators.

On top of all this, the company is getting what may be the most publicity of its 64-year lifetime courtesy of the Chalk River NRU reactor, which was taken offline in late May when a heavy water leak was discovered. The ensuing isotope shortage has caused global consternation.

Bruce Power, Canada’s leading private nuclear-energy company, is a major AECL client. Its president Duncan Hawthorne has made clear Bruce is taking an active interest in the Crown corporation’s restructuring – possibly going as far as to purchase part of a reorganized company.

“We haven’t ruled anything out,” he said. “No doubt there’ll be some kind of request for proposals and we’ll decide whether we want to participate.”

But Mr. Hawthorne said AECL has a long way to go to make itself viable and competitive in the private marketplace.

“It needs to be commercialized, it needs a different management style, it needs to change its position in the market. … And I think the government recognized that.”

Continuing problems with AECL’s repair projects on its reactors don’t inspire confidence in potential future clients, Mr. Hawthorne said.

“If you look at a house builder you wouldn’t want to see him being late and over budget in a house across the street.”

This puts even more pressure on AECL to deliver on its repair work at Chalk River, which has already been pushed back multiple times – from one month to three, then to six and now to a potential 10 months through March, 2010.

Robin Forbes, AECL’s external communications manager, said the company views the pending restructuring as a positive thing and hopes to build on its track record delivering nuclear power generators.

Dominic Ryan, president of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, which does its research at Chalk River, said if the company wants to bolster confidence in its viability, it has to get the aging NRU up and running quickly.

“It can’t leak again, because they’re finished. … There’s too much of the corporate face invested in doing this.

“If they fail there, they’re toast and they know it.”

******

A TIMELINE

Statements from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. concerning the NRU reactor at Chalk River. Ont.

June 15, 2007

“The NRU reactor continues to perform admirably for the benefit of human health and scientific discovery.”

Dec. 4

“AECL is extending the outage of its National Research Universal (NRU) reactor, at its Chalk River facilities, to complete the installation of safety-related equipment.”

Dec. 13

“Chalk River Laboratories have initiated procedures to restart the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor … The NRU reactor has operated safely in the past, and is safer now than it has ever been.”

Feb. 14, 2008

“The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) are undertaking a joint review of the circumstances that led up to the extended outage of AECL’s National Research Universal (NRU) reactor … We welcome this opportunity for a full and transparent examination and expect to learn valuable lessons that can be applied in the future.”

Dec. 12

“Now that the NRU reactor has restarted, AECL will continue to help alleviate the global demand for medical isotopes resulting from technical problems with a European reactor.”

Feb. 17, 2009

“The NRU reactor was safely returned to service … following an unscheduled outage to repair the mechanism to extract medical isotope rods from the reactor.”

Feb. 23

“Routine monitoring has detected small amounts of heavy water containing tritium within the NRU reactor building’s ventilation system. The vapour losses are well below regulatory limits and reportable levels, and pose no threat to the public or the environment.”

May 18

“A small leak of heavy water was detected … at the base of the reactor vessel in a location where there is corrosion on the outside wall of the vessel. Repair options are currently under consideration.”

May 27

“Additional corrosion points on the outer wall of the vessel … will require further examination.”

June 2

“AECL today announced it has begun the process of removing fuel rods from the NRU reactor as part of the process to repair the reactor and return it to service.”

June 10

“AECL staff have been working around the clock to complete the investigations and we will draw on all available expertise, both internal and external, so that we apply the best minds to resolve this issue.”

July 2

“Examinations to date continue to support AECL’s belief that the necessary vessel repairs can be made and that NRU will be safely returned to service.”

July 8

“It is now clear that the NRU will not return to service before late 2009. … The examination has revealed thinning of the wall at the leak site, and identified a total of nine areas of interest.”

Aug. 4

“AECL’s top priority is returning the NRU reactor to service as safely and as quickly as possible.”

Aug. 12

“At this time, the application of the band weld build-up technique, and the increased number of sites, indicates the NRU will return to service during Q1 2010.”

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