CNF Crucial to Future of AECL, Advisory Panel Urgesby Jeremy Whitlock
Dr. Rogers, accompanied at the meeting by most of the eleven-member Advisory Panel, discussed the priority research and development projects of AECL in a presentation billed as "Vision 2020: The Views of AECL's R&D Advisory Panel".
The seminar began with a background summary. AECL established the Panel in 1991, at the behest of the federal government, with a mandate to independently "audit" the company's current and planned R&D activities. The members are drawn mostly from universities around the country, covering the disciplines of chemistry, physics, engineering, and medicine. In addition to technical background, members are chosen for their experience in the management of R&D programs.
Besides the CNF, other "high priority" items for AECL, according to Dr. Rogers, are the reduction of CANDU construction and operational costs, the application of CANDU technology in federal Climate-Change policy, evolutionary CANDU designs, and advanced fuel cycles.
To a large extent this list reflects the direction that AECL is currently taking. For example, the current marketing goal of the company is to secure 25% of emerging market for power reactors, by reducing capital and operating costs by 50%. The 25% market-share figure isn't that unimaginable, Rogers points out, noting that AECL had 17% of the reactor orders placed world-wide in the last decade.
In light of the "priority R&D activities", the Panel made several key recommendations in its 1999 report to AECL's Board of Directors. These include:
- achieving a new governance model for the CNF between the NRC, NRCan, and universities;
- greatly increasing the R&D budget for the advanced CANDU-X design;
- seeking external funding for programs that include a role for CANDU technology in Climate Change abatement; and
- increasing in-house and collaborative support of advanced heavy-water production technology;
Dr. Rogers also expressed the Panel's support of a long list of other activities, such as non-electric uses for CANDU reactors (e.g. desalination and tar-sands oil extraction), the partnership with the Canadian Nuclear Society to develop a new university textbook on CANDU technology, and the current transition of AECL's Radiation Biology program to external funding (much like the neutron-scattering program now in the hands of the NRC).
However, Dr. Rogers repeated that all future activity absolutely hinges on AECL's credibility as nuclear R&D company, which is directly tied to its gaining the CNF replacement reactor for the NRU.
He also urged AECL to push CANDU technology as a key element of the "hydrogen economy" that could eventually displace gasoline usage. He outlined one enticing idea for an "all-Canadian" infrastructure that includes hydrogen-producing electrolysis technology from Stuart Energy Systems and fuel cells from Ballard Power Systems, all powered by electricity from CANDU reactors. In this scenario, Rogers claims that one CANDU-6 reactor could service half a million automobiles.
In the lively question period that followed, some members of the capacity audience suggested that public relations should be given as high a profile as R&D within AECL, possibly forming the mandate of a separate advisory Panel.
Several Panel members addressed a question on the overall efficacy of the R&D Advisory Panel. It was pointed out that there have been successes in the past, such as the Panel's recommendation to build a new animal facility at CRL for radiobiological research. There have also been failures, such the recommendation to establish CRL as a national nuclear lab. Ultimately the company's management and Board of Directors work within a fiscal and political reality in which scientific reasoning plays only an advisory role.
Three reports of the R&D Advisory Panel are available on-line: