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Japan's disaster could put brakes on Canada's energy aspirations

AECL signs major contract with EnergoNuclear of Romania to assess the technical and commercial viability of the Cernavoda CANDU Units 3 and 4 investment project. CANDU Units 1 and 2, in service since 1996 and 2007 respectfully, provide 20 per cent of Romania's electricity supply.


Japan's growing nuclear crisis is raising new concerns about the safety of reactors even as Ontario is considering purchasing new units from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.

The federal regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, insisted on Sunday that Canada's fleet of reactors is designed to meet any potential seismic threat, but some industry experts say the Japanese meltdown will heighten long-harboured safety fears in North America.

"It will be a public-relations disaster," said Guy Marleau, professor of nuclear engineering at Montreal's L'École Polytechniques.

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"It will be a setback like Three Mile Island was in the United States," he said in reference to the nuclear accident in Pennsylvania that gave the industry a black eye for a generation.

AECL has its Candu reactors at five power plants in Canada, including Darlington, Pickering and Bruce in Ontario, Point Lepreau in New Brunswick and Gentilly in Quebec.

AECL - which is being sold off by the federal government - is hoping to sell two new reactors to Ontario, and both the governing Liberals and opposition Conservatives support the need for new units. But Prof. Marleau warned a protracted crisis in Japan could raise public opposition to the projects.

Gerry Frappier, director general of assessment at the federal regulator, said the Canadian plants are less vulnerable to earthquakes, in part because of their location on stable ground.

"Certainly, Canadian nuclear power plants are located in areas that are more seismically stable than what we are talking about in Japan," Mr. Frappier said, adding that none of them are vulnerable to tsunamis.

"All of them have been rated and meet the requirement for the level of earthquakes that are possible in their locations."

However, Canada's power plants were designed to withstand an earthquake that could be expected once in 1,000 years, while proposed new standards would impose a much tougher requirement to withstand a one-in-10,000-year event.

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The Candus are heavy-water reactors, meaning they are cooled by radioactive, cold water, while the Japanese models are boiling-water design, which are impossible to cool when outside sources of water are interrupted.

The Canadian industry boasts that it has operated for 50 years here without a significant mishap.

But Shawn Patrick Stensil, an anti-nuclear activist with Greenpeace, said every design has its safety flaws. He noted the global regulators have demanded higher safety standards for the new generation of reactors, but existing ones were built under less-exacting standards.

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