Last March, the Harper government finally threw some money at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL): $300 million to finally commercialize its new flagship, the ACR1000 power reactor. AECL, a federal crown corporation, is in the fight of its life in Ontario, where, for the first time, it faces international competition in its bid to sell reactors to the province. The feds have made it known they want Ontario to buy Canadian. The $300 million was therefore as much a signal to Ontario as it was a response to the Auditor General, whose January report confirmed AECL has long been under-funded.
The problem is, Harper runs his government on a budget. That means he won’t fund every AECL project. So last week AECL announced it will abandon its Maple isotope reactors, which were supposed to replace the company’s ageing NRU reactor and maintain Canada’s primacy in medical isotope production. The Maples are eight years over schedule and who-knows-how-many dollars over budget. AECL couldn’t say how long it might take to put things right, so the feds pulled the plug.
On the surface this looks like Harper may have contradicted himself. After all, hadn’t he fired the former head of the nuclear regulatory commission for refusing to let AECL power the NRU back up after a maintenance outage late last year? If he’s so concerned about the supply of medical isotopes, why did he pull the plug on the Maple reactors?
Maybe Harper is sending signals. The Maples, like the NRU, would use high-enriched uranium (HEU), and their nearest likely competitor—a reactor in Missouri—would use low-enriched uranium. Anti-proliferation experts frown on HEU, so though the Missouri machine appears at least five years from commercial production, maybe Harper canned the Maples to show that Canada, by phasing out its use of a proliferation-sensitive material like HEU, is a responsible world citizen.
At the same time, maybe the idea is to do everything to help AECL prevail in Ontario. Maybe killing the Maples was another signal to Ontario that AECL is fully focused on the ACR1000.
If so, that is one hell of a roll of the dice. If AECL loses in Ontario, Canada might be right out of the nuclear reactor business.