Robert Nixon 
photo, courtesy of The North Renfrew Times
Speaker: The Hon. Robert F. Nixon
Chairman of the Board of Directors, AECL
Topic: AECL: Perspective from the Board
Location: J.L. Gray Centre
Deep River, Ont.
Date: Thursday, September 25, 1997 (8:00 pm)


Summary published in North Renfrew Times, October 2, 1997:

AECL Board Chair Voices Optimism

by John Hulbert

On Thursday evening (September 25) people in Deep River were given a remarkable opportunity to hear and question Robert Nixon, current chair of Atomic Energy of Canada Limitedís board of directors. The occasion was the annual meeting of the Canadian Nuclear Society, Chalk River Chapter, at the J.J. Gray Centre, or, as old-timers continue to think, Forest Hall. Although the meeting was open to the public, only about 30 people (including several spouses and a high proportion of retirees) attended. Somewhat a lost opportunity, considering that AECL, however in decline, remains the prime employer in the area, and its current prospects impact every person roundabout.

Before Nixon was place at the apex of AECL, he was a science teacher, and then served the people of Ontario for many years as a legislator in government and opposition. It was then to be expected that his approach to his subject, AECL from the boardís perspective, should be non-technical, relaxed and informal.

Nixon explained that the AECL board consisted of himself, the CEO, Reid Morden, and eleven other members from across Canada, all political appointees. To keep this group technically informed, there was, as well as the CEO and the seven vice-presidents, a Science and Technology Committee, chaired by a physicist on the board, Hugh Wynn-Edwards. In addition, Nixon makes good use of his e-mail connection, to which he encouraged employees at all levels and the public to respond.

For the last six years, the annual reports of the Auditor-General have given less than full marks to AECL, because of its failure to provided a fully funded decommissioning program looking 100 years ahead. If AECL were to do this, with present levels of funding, there would be little left for its prime task, the development of nuclear power. AECL had developed the technology for safe storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and components, but it was a matter for the government to develop policy and funding for nuclear waste disposal. As the need arose for constructing waste facilities, AECL had requested the necessary funding. Current pool storage, and longer-term above-ground vaults, were in use in Canada and Korea, proving the success of AECL technology. The "final solution" would require the investment of about $600M and the political will to find a suitable site.

Nixon had recently been in Korea for the ceremonial opening of the Wolsung II reactor, the second CANDU 6 to be brought to full power at the Wolsung site. Wolsung I has been operating well for 16 years, and Wolsung II reached full power about four months ago in a record time for commissioning a new reactor. Two further CANDUs are under construction there, and the site has capacity for six more, or four CANDU 9s. The Korean site is well-run and immaculate and an excellent example of CANDU technology. In China, work is progressing on site development for the next CANDU 6 installation, sold by AECL staff "working like dogs" and a final fillip from Team Canada.

The troubles in Ontario Hydroís management had, naturally, alarmed potential and actual customers all over the world. The team of U.S. advisors, under Mr. Andognini, had not found problems with the technology, only the management. This advisory team, all old hand from the U.S. nuclear submarine program, have had remarkable success in the U.S. in reinvigorating poorly managed installations, and there is every reason to expect that Ontario Hydro will be restored to health in time.

Meanwhile, the Turks, in the market for two CANDU 6s, had written to Andognini for his opinion on CANDU. In reply, he had said that he had extensive experience on boiling light water and pressurized light water reactors, and the CANDU design was better than either. This comes as a glowing testament from a man who was initially very suspicious of a development brought to fruition with nearly exclusively government funding and management.

The 1970s proscription against AECL having any contacts with India or Pakistan is no longer as valid as it was. Canada could probably learn a lot in the are of safety and control from both countries, and Nixon was working on a low-key approach to restore some contact with those former customers.

In conclusion, Nixon said that he and the board were looking forward to visiting CRL in three weeks time. He was proud of the work going on at Chalk River, Pinawa and Sheridan Park. He was well aware of the effects that government funding cuts of 40%, and the consequent loss of important programs, had had on morale, and it was important to restore pride of accomplishment in the staff. As for the board, its members were making an effort toward a better understanding of the objectives of the research program.

In response to questions from the floor, Nixon said he believed that AECL would be making good use of the Andognini letter in due course. As far as Hydro costs were concerned, he believed that too many concessions had been made to union pressures, resulting in excessive staffing costs and poor productivity. The solution lies in the direction of improving employee morale and work satisfaction.

The evening concluded with a social hour and a live display of the local CNS chapterís internet Web Page, at http://www.intranet.ca/~cns_crb.