Despite the shadow cast over the nuclear industry by the Fukushima disaster in Japan three years ago, countries around the world are still looking to build nuclear reactors. At least one Canadian law firm sees an opportunity in that trend.
Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP is aiming to market its expertise in the nuclear industry, gained from work with Ontario’s Bruce Power facility, to win new business globally.
The national law firm has just added to the bench strength of its nuclear practice group, bringing in Ahab Abdel-Aziz, who comes from disintegrated law firm Heenan Blaikie LLP. Gowlings says the move is a key component of its plan to carve out a piece of the global nuclear law market.
Mr. Abdel-Aziz brings experience acting for various nuclear industry clients, including the former Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which builds Canada’s CANDU reactors and is now a unit of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
His move is to be announced this week. He joins a group of about two dozen lawyers at Gowlings focused on the nuclear business, including David McFadden in Toronto, and Robert Armour, who is based in Gowlings’ London office and is the former general counsel of British Energy.
Mr. Abdel-Aziz says he started looking for a new firm before Heenan Blaikie began to fall apart last month, when other partners joined a stampede to the exits: “Those issues slowed me down, because I didn’t want to rush out the door.”
Canada’s entire nuclear business is looking to overseas markets, as countries such as China and India mull using Canadian technology. Reactors are being planned in the United States, but in Canada, the only business for the moment is refurbishment programs at existing facilities.
After an earthquake and a tsunami caused Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to leak radioactive water in March, 2011, many warned that nuclear energy would stall, as it did after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Germany, for example, said it would close all of its nuclear plants by 2022 after Fukushima, and shut almost half of them immediately. But the nuclear business keeps growing worldwide, although at a slower pace than predicted before the disaster.
About three-quarters of proposed reactors are in emerging-market economies, Mr. Abdel-Aziz says. Among those countries looking to expand or launch nuclear programs are Russia, South Korea, China, India, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, South Africa, Vietnam and even oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Plans for new reactors mean lots of work for lawyers. The projects must be steered through stringent approvals by regulators. Complex relationships between public and private entities, contractors and subcontractors, must be negotiated – with an eye to how the risks of cost overruns or other problems will be shared.
It’s this work that Gowlings hopes to get, even if a Canadian nuclear company is not involved, using its London office as a gateway to business in Europe and around the world. Gowlings already has a mandate on a major reactor under development in Britain.
But racking up other new clients worldwide could be difficult because of fierce competition: Big global firms have vast client lists and experience in the nuclear business, such as U.S.-based Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. (Pillsbury acted for the owner and operator of the Three Mile Island plant during the 1979 disaster.)
While many of Canada’s elite law firms have active nuclear practice groups, including Torys LLP and Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, Mr. McFadden says other firms are more focused on the domestic market.
Gowlings sees itself as well-placed to serve the international market. British Energy was a client when it bought an 82-per-cent stake in Ontario’s ailing Bruce nuclear power plant in 2001 to turn it around. When British Energy ran into a financial crisis, it sold its stake in 2002.
Bruce Power LP has since spent billions on a complex, groundbreaking refurbishment of its aging reactors, with Gowlings as its legal adviser. “We are in a good position to export that knowledge,” Mr. McFadden said.
Fukushima has prompted new safety rules worldwide, he said, but opposition to nuclear projects is a constant, and projects may face more regulatory hurdles.
But hurdles are good for the legal business, he points out: “Bad news creates a lot of opportunities for law firms.”