AECL on the brink of restructuring: what’s next for Darlington?

From last week to around 11:30 today (June 23, 2011), the website of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) was “not available.”

Yesterday, AECL hosted a Canadian Nuclear Society seminar on the Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6), an improved version of the CANDU 6 which was so successfully rolled out in South Korea, China, Rumania, and Argentina, as well as in two Canadian provinces.

In announcing the seminar, the CNS said “The first deployment of the EC6 is anticipated in Canada.”

That can only mean Ontario, since that is the only province that has indicated firm interest in AECL’s offerings. (New Brunswick said last summer that it would go with an Areva light water design when it came to adding new reactors.)

The interesting thing is that Ontario, in the reactor competition it held in 2009 for new reactors at the Darlington station, indicated that, all things being equal, it would buy AECL’s next-generation machine, the ACR 1000. Though the ACR “won” against Areva’s EPR and Westinghouse’s AP-1000, the competition went nowhere. Ontario said AECL’s price was too high.

If that was intended to spur the federal government, which owns AECL, to cut some sort of a deal with Ontario, it didn’t work. The feds decided at that point to rid themselves of AECL’s CANDU division and let the new owner sort out the negotiation with Ontario.

Oddly though, the feds said they would continue to support AECL’s research and development. This must have included the main R&D effort, which was turning the ACR into a licensable design, i.e. one that is acceptable to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The federal budgets of 2010 and 2011 therefore included hundreds of millions of dollars for AECL.

Well, somewhere in all the back-and-forth between AECL and the CNSC, people began to lose confidence in the ACR. The CNSC approved the design in principle, via its three-phase vendor pre-project design review. But the wording that accompanied Phase Three did not reassure anybody who has worked with the regulator and is familiar with the polite code-speak that characterizes its communications with license applicants. It was essentially “back to the drawing board.”

So here we are, June 23 2011. AECL’s website has been down for a week. An AECL senior technical manager just yesterday gave a seminar extolling the virtues of a reactor that is not the ACR.

Negotiations are rumoured to be underway between SNC Lavalin and the federal government over the final sale of AECL’s CANDU division.

When www.aecl.ca comes back onto the web, will it be a website for a company that only does R&D? And will the web face of AECL’s CANDU division be found in one of the sub-sites at www.snclavalin.com?

6 comments for “AECL on the brink of restructuring: what’s next for Darlington?

  1. June 23, 2011 at 15:34

    I won’t disagree with anything , except that the website is coming up fine at the moment.
    http://www.aecl.ca/Home.htm

    • Steve Aplin
      June 23, 2011 at 15:36

      Scott, you are right. They just brought it back up a minute ago (between 1130 and 1133). Looks like AECL is for now still in both the CANDU and R&D business!

  2. Rahim
    July 4, 2011 at 15:46

    I am curious to know what have been the real reasons for the ACR or the E6 to still be unsold? Is it the enriched uranium and unavailability of the enrichment facilities? Is it the costly enriched uranium fuel? Is it poor marketing strategies at AECL (Now Candu Energy)? Is it that govt. does not want only single units of ACR here and make it extremely expensive for a single unit to operate rather than maintaining a whole lot? If this is the case then what is the need for researching into the super critical reactors for G-IV. Why not just buy in reactors from Europe like what New Brunswick plans to?

    Please suggest.

  3. Maury Markowitz
    July 8, 2011 at 22:07

    “Oddly though, the feds said they would continue to support AECL’s research and development. This must have included the main R&D effort, which was turning the ACR into a licensable design”

    I’m pretty sure it did not, every indication was that ACR was de-staffed to some degree immediately following the Alberta and Ontario announcements.

    If the statement about sales of a EC6 are true, then this strikes me as further evidence that ACR is no longer a going concern.

    EC6 might not have the $/W of the ACR, but I think for Ontario’s needs, the smaller size makes much more sense. And given AECL’s history on large projects compared to the history for C6, I say EC6 FTW!

    • Steve Aplin
      July 8, 2011 at 22:26

      Difficult to say exactly when the bulk of R&D spending shifted from the ACR to the EC6. But you are right, the ACR is no longer a going concern. I now hear that the straight CANDU—natural uranium and heavy water—is the focus, and that it could be scaled up to well over 1,000 MW. Part of the rationale for the ACR was to move to a negative void reactivity coefficient. Why not just explain better why it doesn’t really matter whether the coefficient is positive or negative as long as proper defenses are in place.

      It now all hangs on Ontario, which said in 2009 it wanted a few 1000+ MW machines.

      • Maury Markowitz
        July 8, 2011 at 23:36

        To be honest, I always thought the ACR was a bit of mis-step. It was such a radical departure from the basic CANDU philosophy that it worked against their own marketing message…

        CANDU has no enrichment! well except for this new machine we’re trying to sell…

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