Sierra Club of Canada Media Release


February 5, 2001

$500 million funding for the proposed new Canadian Neutron Facility (CNF) reactor would be a major reversal of the government’s previous decision to cut back on nuclear subsidies. The Chrétien government has already backtracked on its March 1996 budget commitment, when it said that AECL subsidies would be reduced to $174 million in 1997; $132 million by 1998; and $100 million per year thereafter. Its budget promise was exceeded by 14% in 1997; 27% in 1998; 27% in 1999; and 57% in 2000. The average annual subsidy to AECL in those four years was $162 million — the AECL subsidy in 2000 was $156 million.

Ironically, half of the proposed CNF reactor is intended for materials research. In its March 1996 budget announcement, the government decided that it would shift materials research away from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), and force it to concentrate on its CANDU business. AECL’s funding for the Condensed Matter Research Program ended on March 31, 1997, and it was transferred to the National Research Council (NRC) with $4.5 million funding for three years. In April 2000 the program was turned over the NRC. The NRC programs are still operated out of AECL’s Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory, using AECL’s NRU reactor, so AECL’s program continues to operate under a different guise, with government funding that does not appear as a 'nuclear’ subsidy.

In 1998, AECL joined with the National Research Council (NRC) to announce construction of the CNF. The two crown agencies prematurely announced that construction would take place from 1999 to 2005, with another two years to install neutron beam instruments. The cost would be about $500 million for construction with operating costs of about $45 million/year. Construction is expected to take about six years, with an additional two years to install materials research instruments. Initial funding of $50 million for an environmental assessment, and the final design work has reportedly been requested. Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission staff have already completed their “pre-project licensing review”.

Sierra Club of Canada believes that if the CNF reactor is built, private sector and utility users should pay the $500 million construction cost as well as paying for operations on a cost-plus basis to cover the expenses of academic users. In addition, the Canadian Neutron Facility should be designed to have zero radiation emissions during normal operation and a full containment system to prevent releases during any nuclear reactor accident.

The CNF has been described as a “partnership” between the National Research Council, AECL, the universities and industry, although it is clear that none of these partners are willing to provide any of the capital cost of the facility. Several private sector corporations, including Alcan International Ltd., Marubeni Canada Ltd., and IVACO Rolling Mills have spoken in favour of the project, but they have neglected to mention if they are willing to invest in construction costs.

Perhaps more importantly, there has been no mention as yet of funding from Ontario Power Generation, Hydro Quebec, or New Brunswick Power, for use of the CNF for their reactor maintenance programs. As the largest owner and operator of CANDU reactors, it would be appropriate for Ontario Power Generation to pay a large share of the capital costs, since half of the reactor’s facilities will be devoted to research and the testing of reactor fuel and components. The value of the reactor for research in AECL’s ongoing reactor export program is dubious. This would only have value if one believes that AECL’s export program will be successful. Based on past experience and future prospects, this is extremely unlikely.

The CNF is not intended to produce any medical isotopes. The Canadian government has already provided $120 million in financial support for the two MAPLE reactors, now being built at Chalk River. Despite this huge investment of public funds, the reactors will be owned by the private company MDS Nordion, and produce medical isotopes exclusively for them. Together, the MAPLEs and the CNF are intended to replace the functions of the NRU reactor at Chalk River. The NRU was scheduled for shutdown in year 2000, but following a drawn-out lawsuit and delay in construction of the MAPLE reactors, the Atomic Energy Control Board (now the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CNSC) allowed AECL to continue operating the NRU until December 31, 2005.

The lack of a new Canadian reactor to replace the functions of the NRU reactor need not be a problem for utilities and industry. Materials and reactor research can be conducted at other international facilities. It would be much more cost effective for Canadian companies to buy time on the global network of neutron sources. There are four high-flux neutron reactor sources in operation or planned — two in the United States, one in France and one in Russia. In addition, there are 18 medium-flux reactors (similar to the NRU and the proposed CNF) in operation or under construction around the world. There are also 14 so-called “spallation” neutron source accelerator facilities operating or under construction, including four in the United States, three in the United Kingdom, and three in Europe. The alleged “oversubscription” of these facilities is a minor and short-term inconvenience as a world balance is worked out with life extension and construction of new facilities, includin! g many new accelerators.

The CNF design is a pool-type reactor based on the MAPLE X-10 design with a nominal power of 40MW (thermal). The reactor assembly (including the reactor vessel) is located in a light-water pool about 15 metres deep. The fuel would be aluminum clad and enriched to about 20% uranium-235, with light water coolant. It is proposed that the reactor have a dual purpose. One purpose to test fuel and components for existing as well as new CANDU reactor designs. The other purpose is for “materials research”, to study the nature of various materials through neutron scattering, which has scientific and commercial applications.

Routine reactor operations cause airborne and waterborne radioactive pollution, allowed under current licensing rules. In addition, a severe accident could result in widespread contamination if the structures surrounding the reactor are not designed to fully contain the accident. Exposure to radiation increases the risk of cancer and birth defects. The CNF reactor should be designed to achieve zero emissions during routine operations, and include a full containment system which will function reliably during any reactor accident.