Friday, December 14, 2007

Chalk River: It's All Becoming Clear

What seemed like a suspicious but confusing sequence of events when I posted about Chalk River yesterday has now come sharply into focus, thanks to bloggers at The Galloping Beaver and Politics & Poetry who are much, much better at this than I.

Go read.

What I failed to understand yesterday was this: that AECL has wanted to shut down the NRU reactor at Chalk River (the 50 year-old one) for some time now and replace it with their new Maple 1 and 2 reactors (also at Chalk River). This explains why they have been so reluctant to make the required safety upgrades to the NRU. Why bother if they're just going to mothball it?

The problem? Maple 1 and 2 were supposed to have gone online back in 1999, but cost overruns and bureaucratic bungling put them years behind schedule, and now the CNSC has refused to sign off on them because, frankly, they aren't working properly and nobody can seem to figure out why. One CNSC official described it as "a problem with the reactor physics in the core" - a phrase which caused all the blood to drain from my husband's face (he used to work at the accelerator lab at McMaster University).

Dave at the Beaver put it best:
When the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission demanded a safety upgrade it probably ran afoul of AECL's plans - and the plans of the Harper government to sell off AECL. The CNSC was calling for a fairly expensive upgrade to a reactor AECL would rather not be operating. The same regulator will not issue licenses for the MAPLE reactors until safety concerns with them are rectified.

How do you reassure a prospective buyer that the regulator will not be a problem? Push the regulator out of the way.

Aside from the potential sale of AECL, there is another reason why the government is so anxious to switch over to their new reactors. The NRU reactor uses high-enriched uranium (HEU) which AECL buys from the U.S. and then sells back to them after they're done with it for use in their bomb program. The problem is, not only has the market for nuclear weapons taken a bit of a dive lately, but the U.S. has all but banned the transport and trade of HEU under non-proliferation regulations.

While the Maple 1 and 2 reactors were originally designed to use HEU, and AECL was actually stockpiling the stuff at one point in case their supply was cut off, it now appears that these new reactors will be using low-enriched uranium instead - at least according to AECL's website.

I suspect the odds of the CNSC signing off on these reactors in the next few months just improved significantly. And if they don't, well, Harper can just do another end-run.

Meanwhile, Canadian TV news continues to broadcast the over simplified and inaccurate sound bites spouted by the Conservatives with no attempt at analysis or investigation, while devoting half their newscasts to the Mulroney/Schreiber show.

Oh, look, a bunny...