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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Why the dog of a nuclear deal with India didn't bark Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper scored a series of public relations coups in India, all of which were chronicled by the Canadian media. Substantively, however, the trip was a disappointment, even a bust.

Photo ops of the Prime Minister with Bollywood starlets and standing barefoot on the steps of the Golden Temple at Amritsar were widely displayed back home. We can bet the mortgage that they will be featured prominently in Conservative Party advertising in Indian communities in Canada.

The photo ops are staples of Mr. Harper's international touring in which every step, camera angle and utterance is planned meticulously in advance for maximum television coverage and minimum opportunity for questioning of the Prime Minister.

But on two substantives issues between Canada and India, nothing happened. The trip that was supposed to complete a nuclear technology transfer agreement and an accord protecting foreign investment produced zilch.

Last May, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day said: "We're very close to having an agreement with India related to the civilian use of nuclear energy for the purpose of helping them meet their energy needs."

That was almost six months ago. With a prime ministerial trip on offer, you would have thought heaven and earth would have been moved to conclude the agreement, so it could have been signed in front of the cameras in New Delhi. It wasn't. So the real story of the trip lay in discovering why the dog of a nuclear agreement (and the foreign investment one) did not bark.

Part of the answer likely lies in disagreements over nuclear safeguards. Canada got screwed in 1974 by the Indians, who used expertise gained from Canadian nuclear technology for civilian purposes to help make an atomic bomb.

Bygones are supposedly bygones, but Canada is insisting on the kind of tougher safeguards India accepted in its nuclear deal with the U.S. rather than the more relaxed ones in deals with the French and Russians. India presumably is balking, since, frankly, it doesn't need Canadian nuclear technology (although it might like uranium).

A bigger, contextual reason - completely at variance with the message of the photo ops - is that Canada doesn't count for much in India. The legendarily sluggish Indian bureaucracy wasn't going to put the pedal to the metal for Canada. At the highest levels of the Indian government, Canada is a nice but not very important country. Said a friend who knows India well: If this had been the prime minister of Japan or Brazil, a deal would have been signed.

In any event, the nuclear agreement wasn't all that important to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., although its president was along for the trip. On a list of several dozen imperatives for AECL to survive, an Indian-Canadian nuclear deal would rank near the bottom - useful perhaps but hardly vital.

More than anything else, AECL's survival depends on struggles at home - specifically, inside the federal cabinet where two camps are fighting.

One camp wants to be rid of AECL for its cost overruns and insistent demands on the federal treasury, by selling the whole company, or what can be sold, to a foreign nuclear company. (Former Liberal energy minister Alastair Gillespie recounts in his autobiography how, in 1977, he fired the head of AECL for massive cost overruns in a Candu heavy water reactor sold to Argentina. Plus ça change.) The other camp wants Canada to hold on to AECL and its technology, while privatizing the company's management.

AECL's priority remains fixing the aging Chalk River reactor that had been producing medical isotopes. It absolutely must have that reactor up and running properly by April 1, or lingering credibility for AECL would evaporate.

AECL then needs to win the Ontario contract for new reactors. Although the province chose AECL's new reactor over foreign bidders, the government said the price was way too high and is seeking federal financial help. It is also pondering whether, with new forecasts for big surpluses in natural gas in North America, nuclear is too expensive and risky anyway.

In which case, AECL would be finished, because refurbishing its reactors in Ontario and New Brunswick is over-budget, its Maple reactors do not work, the Chalk River reactor broke down and AECL's new reactor won't have been sold anywhere in the world.

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