A version of the following commentary appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Thursday June 21, 2001
Canada continues with nuclear folly
By David H. Martin
The Chrétien government is considering giving hundreds of millions of dollars in additional subsidies to state-owned nuclear company, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to design a new nuclear reactor for export. At issue is a $200 million special subsidy, in addition to the annual AECL subsidy, which was $156.5 million last year. AECL is also lobbying for a new $500 million research reactor. AECLs annual reports show that it has received a staggering $16.6 billion in subsidies since it was founded in 1952.
The government has its priorities reversed. Last year, it spent 13 times more on subsidies to AECL than it spent on its total funding for renewable energy ($12 million).
As usual, the cabinet is reviewing nuclear subsidies in secret. The last review was also done behind closed doors. We can be sure that secret reviews do not result in good plans. AECLs 1995 plan to sell ten reactors in ten years is a bust. AECL has sold 11 power reactors in the last 40 years -- about two per cent of the worlds reactors. It has recently lost out on reactor sales to Turkey and South Korea, and research reactor sales to Thailand and Australia. It has no foreseeable prospects, even with China, which bought two CANDU reactors in 1996 using $1.5 billion in financing from the Canadian government.
AECL says it can design a cheaper, smaller reactor. Weve heard this before. In 1989-90, AECL spent about $75 million on the CANDU-3 reactor design, which was smaller and meant to break into new markets. It was a flop -- nobody wanted to be the first to build an untested reactor. From 1985-1990, AECL spent about $45 million on the Slowpoke Energy System, a small reactor intended to provide district heating. Same story -- no takers. AECL also invented the Gentilly-1 reactor. It was a spectacular failure, operating less than 200 days. In addition to design costs, the federal government wrote off almost $130 million for that one.
After 50 years of financial failure, there will not be any surprise turn-around at AECL. Talk of a nuclear renaissance is spin doctoring. There are no firm proposals for new nuclear plants in North America, although utilities are extending the lives of a number of old, dangerous nuclear plants.
There are better alternatives. Last year, the German government negotiated a nuclear phaseout, and in one year alone commissioned over 1,600 megawatts of wind turbines. Nuclear power is a sunset industry, and the rising stars of our electrical future are renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar. Giving taxpayer subsidies to AECL is just throwing money down a black hole. Its time to pull the plug.
David H. Martin is a Nuclear Policy Consultant with the Sierra Club of Canada.