In 2012 Robert Walker, then president of Atomic Energy Canada Ltd (AECL), gave a keynote address at the Canadian Nuclear Association’s annual, not-to-be-missed, industry conference.

The timing followed on the heels of an Expression of Interest (EOI) by the federal government that Walker said was “not a statement of sale,” for the crown corporation but “a mechanism to allow ideas to come in” that would help shape the direction of AECL-owned nuclear laboratories.

Walker suggested the company’s restructuring was not just about the future of the 60-year-old nuclear  laboratories or even the company, but “the future of the industry itself and how AECL helps in that journey to move forward.” The industry was eager to understand what restructuring might mean for them, given its inextricable links with AECL.

Nuclear science history in the making

In 1944, the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) opened under direction of Canada’s national research council. Two years later, the Atomic Energy Control Act, was passed, creating its regulatory framework.

By 1952, when the government formed AECL with a mandate to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy and gave the company accountability for the national lab, the site was already home to the ZEEP (Zero Energy Experimental Pile) reactor and the National Research Experimental (NRX) reactor. Over its 45-year operation, the NRX was used to produce radioisotopes and for development of fuels and materials for CANDU reactors. It also provided neutron sources for experimental physics. 

Five years into AECL’s mandate, in 1957, the National Research Universal Reactor (NRU) went critical. It would become a world-recognised research reactor and primary producer of isotopes for nuclear medicine. AECL opened a second nuclear laboratory four years later, at Whiteshell in Manitoba, home to an innovative organic-cooled research reactor and a pioneering geological disposal laboratory.

Over the course of their lifetimes, the research reactors would be instrumental in developing nuclear science and physics, life-saving medical diagnostics and treatments (including pioneering of cancer treatments), and other beneficial uses of nuclear technologies.

That is not to say everything was smooth sailing. In 1952 and 1958 two serious fuel channel cooling accidents, one at each reactor, created early challenges to the fledgling programme’s credibility. With them came hard but important nuclear safety lessons. 

Perhaps amplified by its government ownership and the pioneering role it played, throughout its history, AECL has been a world-recognised innovator of great scientific achievement while facing technical and political challenges that tested public trust. 

Development of CANDU technology

AECL’s research reactors were an incredible asset to the company and the world it served. But the organisation’s seminal moment came from its 1954 partnership with the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, the predecessor to Ontario Hydro (which was later reorganised into five components, including the still-existing Ontario Power Generation).

The initial joint venture reactor was built by Canadian General Electric, 30km from Chalk River. In 1962, the 20MWe Rolphton nuclear power demonstration plant was commissioned as a working test facility for CANDU technology. It also served as a training ground for future engineers and operators.

CANDU, a trademark owned by AECL, stands for Canada – deuterium – uranium. Unlike most reactor designs, the reactor uses natural uranium as a fuel, with deuterium oxide (heavy water) as moderator and coolant. It has online fuelling capability and the capacity to produce medical isotopes, like cobalt-60, alongside large-scale electricity. The CANDU technology has been a source of a strong nationalistic pride, defining Canada’s nuclear journey.

Commissioning of a 200MWe CANDU prototype at Douglas Point, in 1966, paved the way for Pickering the first large-scale commercial power plant, directly adjacent to Canada’s largest city and economic centre, Toronto.

The partnership between AECL and the Ontario electricity company was significant, given generation decisions are under provincial — not federal — jurisdiction in Canada. The partnership also helped form a model that would be essential to Canada’s global nuclear ambitions, says Fred Dermarkar, the current AECL president and CEO. “Collaboration is what enables Canada, to punch above its weight. Collaboration is what has made us a Tier 1 nuclear nation,” he says. “From the very beginning, we wanted to do it our way; to have a made-in-Canada design that matched our beliefs and reflected our capabilities. As a small country, we could not have done this without collaboration.” 

The first Pickering unit, already well into planning when Douglas Point was built, began operation in 1971 and was soon followed by three other 600MWe reactors. The site would eventually house eight units, six of which continue successful operation today. In its early operation, the plant often led with world performance records. Six years later, the first unit in Bruce County came into operation. The site would eventually hold eight 800MWe units. Today, Bruce is the world’s largest operating nuclear facility. 

Taking CANDU global

Through the remainder of the 20th century, Canada’s CANDU dream would see additional builds in Ontario (four 900MWe units at Darlington in Clarington) and two one-unit CANDU-6 plants in New Brunswick and Quebec. The company also went global, with reactor builds in six other countries.

With CANDU sales, Canada was fulfilling the promise of its science and technology investment. It was producing large-scale, reliable electricity to power its economy; providing essential health services; and meeting economic development and international trade goals. In doing so, it was building deep national capability in research, operations, supply chain, regulation and academia.

Jerry Hopwood is president of the University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering (UNENE), a network of 13 universities across Canada and one in Romania. Hopwood, who spent much of his career at AECL, credits the company’s training and education programmes, in addition to its research, as key contributors to Canada’s capability today.

“Into the eighties, the Chalk River site had a very strong training presence. In the centre of Deep River was a large student residence,” he says. It was a campus where students and visiting staff from all over the world stayed and learned. “AECL took training and development seriously. I remember many professional development seminars, and the atmosphere was not unlike a university. AECL sponsored a lot of people to complete their PhDs via secondments or as staff, and still do. And the AECL CRL facilities were made available to universities as a natural support to their R&D programmes.” AECL also created a pipeline of technical advisors and professors, now working across the industry and in academia, training the next generation.

A challenging era

In the 1990s, ageing challenges brought technical issues. These were technically solvable, but the associated political challenges would prove more difficult. In 1998, about half of Ontario’s nuclear fleet was shut down. It appeared the golden atomic era might be over. 

All but two of the reactors would eventually be restarted in the 2000s and go on to achieve some of their best performances in the decade that followed. Many would undergo full refurbishments, and some are expected to operate into the 2060s. 

The Ontario fleet was foundational to that province’s transition into a clean energy future and largely responsible for the province’s phase out of coal-powered generation by 2014. Their performance has opened the door for continued use of CANDU technology through refurbishment and the use of small modular reactors as part of Canada’s — and AECL’s — Net Zero plan. But none of that was known as the century rolled over into the early 2000s. 

Back at Chalk River, in the same era, there were plans to end operation of the ageing NRU. In development were two twin reactors, intended to be the first units dedicated solely to medical isotope production. The 10MWe Maple (Multipurpose Applied Physics Lattice Experiment) reactors were named for the country’s iconic maple tree. They would have built-in redundancy during outages and would meet the entire world demand. 

One unit went critical in 2000 and the second in 2003 but faced technical issues resulting in a regulatory challenge. In 2008, in one of the most serious challenges to AECL’s future and its legacy, the reactors were shelved. Instead, the company took the challenging step of investing in the NRU’s continued operation, to ensure the world’s demand for medical isotopes was met. By the time the NRU stopped operating a decade later, having successfully delivered on its mandate, other CANDU operators had stepped into the breach. They are delivering isotopes alongside energy generation and capitalising on CANDU’s unique ability to produce isotopes while delivering large-scale grid power.

Ontario brought AECL its last problem in a challenging era, when the provincial government scuttled plans for new-build at Darlington after a lengthy procurement competition between AECL and Westinghouse. The decision left AECL without a domestic showcase for its newest CANDU advanced reactor design. In 2011, with mounting debt, the company’s reactor design and services division was sold to SNC-Lavalin. Shortly after, it announced the restructuring EOI for management of the national lab, NRU, its 11 other sites, and legacy waste management and remediation projects. 

Restructuring AECL

In Walker’s March 2012 address, he laid out a vision for the Canadian industry as an enabler to the most pressing public policy questions of the day, and for AECL as an enabler to industry. He reminded the audience how far Canada’s nuclear programme had come.

He said, “We are a Tier 1 Nation; we have it all. We’ve committed to nuclear energy. We have world-class operations. We have an internationally respected federal regulator. We have a robust domestic nuclear supply chain from mining through manufacturing and services. We have a robust interplay of colleges and universities that are educating our next generation of nuclear workers and providing the appropriate research to augment their training.” He added, “I will declare a bias, we have a unique structure in the AECL nuclear laboratories from a number of perspectives. All of those ingredients coming together define a Tier-1 nuclear sector.”

AECL, he said, was mandated to advise government on matters of public policy in areas such as medical isotopes, management and disposition of legacy and historic waste; to “provide a science and technology backstop;” and to execute public policy — all things it was well-qualified to do from its years of strategy and execution.

The company, he said, was “an enabler to business innovation, transferring technologies into the hands of industry to turn them into wealth and jobs” and, a “core generator of a workforce,” creating leaders and providing all the ingredients for a bright nuclear future.

A new model and mandate

On 3 November 2014, AECL created a wholly owned subsidiary, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), in a government owned-contractor operated (Go-Co) model. It transferred approximately 3400 people at 12 locations across Canada to a private sector consortium.

“CNL may be a new organisation, but it stands on the shoulders of a Crown corporation with a proud history that spans over six decades of cutting-edge nuclear science and technology,” Walker said. “This new model of operation will capitalise on burgeoning market opportunities and private sector management.”

A path to a clean energy future

Today, AECL’s stated vision is “to realise value to Canadians by driving nuclear innovation, creating a state-of-the-art nuclear campus, and cleaning up our legacy wastes.”

CNL has been steadily delivering on that mandate since it was formed, says Dermarkar, who took the reins from Walker’s successor, Richard Sexton, in February 2021. “The Go-Co mission is critical. We need to see through the remediation. We need to deal with the past to have a future,” he says. “We also need to rejuvenate the Chalk River site to have a world-class lab. We need to ensure the direction of the science and technology research performed at the labs is aligned with Canada’s long-term strategic interests.” 

Through CNL, AECL is supporting efforts in areas like SMR and hydrogen development, as well as continued research in CANDU technologies. It is playing a leadership role in nuclear safety and security, including cyber security.

Speaking at the 2021 AECL annual public meeting, Dermarkar reflected on the value of a Go-Co model in strengthening the company. The private sector management model gives the crown corporation access to the best expertise and resources, in a way Dermarkar says he had not appreciated before taking the job. Once again, collaboration is making things possible.

He harkens back to the same themes Walker spoke to in 2012, and which have been front and centre for the industry:

  • Get major projects delivered on time, on budget;
  • Enable the supply chain to compete internationally through new reactor sales, both new SMR technologies demonstrated in Canada and CANDU technology;
  • Coordinate Canada’s nuclear R&D, including academia;
  • Address waste in an environmentally responsible manner;
  • Create a human pipeline of highly qualified persons.

“I very much see us having a role in all of this. As a crown corporation, we are not there to compete with industry. We are here to complement and enable industry. We are here to help industry to meet Canada’s goals in health, energy, environment and security,” he says.

Dermarkar adds that like the Government of Canada, AECL is unwavering in its commitment to Indigenous reconciliation, the foundation of which will be building long-lasting relationships with Indigenous communities as the company fulfils its science, climate change and waste management commitments.

Looming large in the current government agenda are aggressive emission reduction targets, sitting right on top of goals for prosperity and meeting increasing demand for energy. Nuclear can have a major role in that, but it needs to be concretely defined, and soon.

On that topic, Dermarkar adds a sixth focus area where he believes AECL can be a critical lever. “We need to advocate and gain public acceptance by creating the conditions that will allow Canadians to take pride in Canada’s nuclear capabilities. That is dependent on what we do, in our organisations, and as an industry, and it depends on our ability to raise that up and make it visible,” he says.

“Ninety-nine out of 100 people have no idea what Canada has accomplished in nuclear science,” he says. “And that is a shame, because what we have achieved is world-class and it’s important.” 

With the first strategic planning process of his presidency underway, it’s clear Dermarkar has a few ideas for how AECL and industry can collaborate on what might be Canada’s most audacious nuclear goal yet. Expect to hear it on a podium, soon. 

About the Author

Jacquie Hoornweg is Executive Director, Brilliant Energy Institute, Ontario Tech University