Press Responses : Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The case against Candu, if only Parliament would talk about it

Susan Riley
The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will be trying to sell more Candu nuclear reactors to China when he travels abroad next week. Which raises the question: When did we have the national debate on whether we should be continuing to promote nuclear power?

We didn't, of course. Instead, decisions on this crucial policy continue to be made behind closed cabinet doors and millions in public subsidies continue to flow to an industry that should have imploded long ago. But, two weeks ago, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. was advanced $46 million through supplementary estimates -- a conveniently arbitrary payment method -- to develop a cheaper and less cumbersome model of the Candu, intended for the U.S. market. No public debate, no parliamentary hearings, barely a mention in the media: just the way so many big decisions have been made in Jean Chrétien's Ottawa.

Even if the technology smacks of the 1970s and the nuclear industry itself of Dr. Strangelove, a debate over nuclear power has never been more timely. In the Kyoto era, with governments scrambling to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear industry is promoting itself as a clean alternative -- and it is, in the sense that its plants don't spew toxic gases. However, there is the little matter of 30,000 tonnes of radioactive waste now stored at existing facilities, and the fact, that, after 50 years, the industry still hasn't found a safe way to dispose of it. (A federal agency is looking into this problem now and is expected to come up with three options soon -- including burying the waste deep in the Canadian Shield.)

Meanwhile, Candu sales agents and their political enablers prefer to look on the sunny side. Given new interest in nuclear energy since Kyoto, says Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal, the new Candu is "a great opportunity for Canada."

In this case, opportunity doesn't begin at home. There hasn't been a new nuclear reactor built here in 30 years. The accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 had a depressing impact on sales; the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, raised niggling doubts about claims that nuclear power is safe. The fallout from these tragedies is still settling. Germany has just decided to phase out the domestic reactors that generate 30 per cent of that country's power, after a debate in its parliament. Belgium had a similar debate recently and also voted to phase out nuclear reactors -- even though they generate 57 per cent of Belgium's power. Italy shut down its nuclear sector in the wake of Chernobyl. And Switzerland just held a referendum on the subject. The Swiss opted to retain nuclear power, but at least they were asked.

If anything, European counties are more dependent on nuclear energy than Canada -- because they have fewer alternative power sources. Yet, says Shawn-Patrick Stensil of the Sierra Club, some recognize the danger and cost of the technology and have opted to develop renewable energy and emphasize conservation instead of taking the nuclear route. Canada is inhibited, he says, partly because Chrétien has long been a major booster of the nuclear industry. He first entered politics in 1963, when nuclear power was being promoted as the way of the future and the Candu advanced as evidence of Canadian technological sophistication. The subsequent disasters, the now-routine cost overruns, even the threat of terrorist mischief -- nothing has moved Chrétien from his antiquated view. (His successor, Paul Martin has a stronger grasp of environmental issues, but will he ever challenge the well-entrenched nuclear industry? Another open question.)

In fact, when the domestic market tanked, subsequent Liberal, and Tory, governments energetically marketed the Candu abroad -- to places like Korea, Argentina, Romania and China. These foreign sales often entailed considerable cost; the first sale to China, for instance, was backed by a $1.5-billion loan guarantee from the federal government.

It is hardly shocking that a country that exports tobacco and asbestos also wants to sell nuclear power to the Third World. But, says Stensil, the debate is about to come home: By 2020, existing nuclear reactors in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick will be past their stale-date and must be renovated, replaced or abandoned. Rather than wait for the inevitable energy crunch this will cause, why not start conserving power and exploiting existing, safe alternatives? Can we at least talk about it?

Susan Riley writes Monday, Wednesday and Friday.


Re: The case against Candu, if only Parliament would talk about it ,Oct. 15.
Sunday , October 19, 2003

Contrary to Susan Riley's assertion, the Canadian nuclear industry has developed a safe method for the disposal of the wastes. In 1996, a scientific review group of 15 independent technical experts concluded that Canada's proposal for multi-barrier, deep-geological disposal of the wastes was safe, and recommended implementation. Politicians, however, found ways to stall controversial implementation.

"Foreign sales often entailed considerable costs ... e.g. (a federal) loan guarantee."? Of the six CANDU reactors that were financed in part by the Export Development Corporation (EDC) three loans have been completely repaid, two are in good standing and the loan to China is just starting to be repaid. The Canadian part of the three remaining South Korean CANDUs was paid entirely in cash. And EDC earned a profit in all but one of 54 years.

"Routine cost overruns"? The two latest CANDUs, built in China, were completed within budget and on schedule. Ms. Riley opposes CANDU for China. By 2041 China's GDP is expected to overtake the U.S.'s. Experience with many countries shows electricity demand increasing with GDP, but somewhat faster. Where would she have China get all this electricity? It cannot conserve what does not exist. There are not a hundred more Three Gorges projects, reviled by environmentalists, to be exploited. Other renewables, because they are intermittent, diffuse and hence expensive may contribute about 10%. The rest is going to have to come from coal and nuclear. Which does she prefer, given her support for Kyoto?

A reason that no CANDUs have been built in Canada recently is that very few generators of any kind have been built: hence the current shortage. Seven individuals, more eminent than I in this field, have argued "The Case for Nuclear Power for Ontario" at

J.A.L. Robertson, Deep River
Canada needs open debate on nuclear policy
Re: Nuclear power must supply new energy, Oct. 19.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Letter-writer J. A. L. Robertson conveniently dodged columnist Susan Riley's principal point, the need for a national debate on Canada's nuclear policy.

As a former nuclear-industry employee, Mr. Robertson should know that we have never had an open, democratic debate on Canada's support for nuclear-power production and exports.

Two examples make this blindingly clear. Despite a majority of federal MPs signing a petition against exporting a second Candu reactor to Romania in 1999, Export Development Canada (EDC) this year provided a $328-million loan guarantee for the reactor. Second, the money for the loan came straight from the federal government's Canada account, because the guarantee was too risky for EDC but was deemed to be "in the national interest."

In contrast, Italy held a referendum that established it would not produce nuclear energy on its soil, nor would nuclear companies participate in projects abroad. More recently, Germany decided to prohibit its EDC-equivalent agency from financing the sale of nuclear-power technology.

As other countries have debates on nuclear power, shouldn't Canada? Then the Canadian public, not Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, can decide if there really is a nuclear renaissance.

Fraser Reilly-King, Ottawa, Co-ordinator, NGO Working Group on EDC

Candu has key role in stable energy supply

Re: Canada needs open debate on nuclear power

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Letter-writer Fraser Reilly-King should spend some time in Bucharest breathing air contaminated by outdated coal-fired plants burning brown coal before he criticizes Canada's loans to Romania for the construction of Candu nuclear plants at Cernavoda.

He might also point out that every cent of the first $1-billion Canada Account loan issued by the Export Development Corporation in the 1980s for this project was repaid ealier than required. As well, Romania is current on the second Canada Account/EDC loan issued in 1992 for the completion of the first unit, and this loan will no doubt be fully paid off on schedule in 2006. EDC should be so fortunate to have such a payment record with all its clients.

Concerning Mr. Reilly-King's remarks regarding Italy's righteous stand on nuclear power, your readers might be interested in knowing that Atomic Energy Canada Limited's consoritium partner on the Cernavoda project is non other than Ansaldo of Italy, whose scope of work was financed by Italy's EDC equivalent agency. Italy also imports a base load of 6,000 MW of electricity, the equivalent of seven Darlington units, from France, whose power base is 75 per-cent nuclear.

The reactors built by AECL in Argentina, Korea, China and Romania consistently rank in the top 10 per cent of the world's reactors in terms of performance. Canadians should be proud of this home-grown, zero-emissions technology. Nothing is perfect, but if the Canadian public wants a stable supply of clean energy, nuclear power is an indispensible component.

Christopher Hughes, Oakville
Mr. Hughes is president of a company that supplies equipment to the Canadian nuclear industry.