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The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada > News & Events > Communications Magazine > Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer 2010 > Off the Beaten Path - AECL: Brilliant Science Bungled
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Off the Beaten Path

AECL signing

Institute negotiator Joe Ahrens and Chalk River Professional Employee Group (CRPEG) President Vince Frisina.

When we think of bargaining at the Institute, we usually first think of the large national Groups, stretching from one end of the country to the other. Appropriately so, as they have been the cornerstone of our 90-year-old union. But much of the spice comes from our smaller Regional Groups who are unencumbered by self-serving federal laws, rules and regulations.

This new column will be dedicated to those PIPSC Groups that are off the beaten path. In addition to providing an update on the status of regional negotiations, it will highlight their trials, tribulations and successes. It will also inform on the labour issues affecting our membership and the methods utilized to fulfill the needs of our members who work off the beaten path.

The first in this series: Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL); strong accomplishments with an intransigent employer through solid membership support. The Institute represents some 750 members at the Chalk River and Whiteshell Laboratories.

AECL: Brilliant Science Bungled

Power shortages, green energy, insatiable demand for medical isotopes, a worldwide nuclear renaissance, and the best professional engineers and scientists money can buy. A recipe for success?

A Brief History

In 1944, Canada’s first nuclear reactor commenced construction in Chalk River, parachuting Canada to the forefront of world nuclear research and paving the way toward the development of the CANDU reactor. In 1952, AECL was formed as a Crown corporation; the government of Canada being the sole shareholder.

Chalk River Laboratories

In 1947, until 1992, the world’s most powerful reactor, AECL’s National Research Experimental, started up at the Chalk River Laboratories. A second reactor, the National Research Universal (NRU) came on stream in 1957 and remains operational to date. The NRU supplies 60% of the world’s medical isotopes used for cancer detection and treatment.

In 1986, AECL scientists and engineers constructed the world’s first Tandem Accelerator Superconducting Cyclotron to conduct scientific research on sub-atomic particles. An invaluable cutting-edge research tool, shut down for lack of continued funding.

Whiteshell Laboratories

In 1963, AECL opened the Whiteshell Laboratories (WL) in Pinawa, Manitoba. With its Slow Poke research reactor, Whiteshell Reactor, RD-14M Thermalhydraulic Test Facility and Underground Research Laboratory (URL), this was a world leader in nuclear research and waste management.

In 1997, closure of WL, including the URL was announced. Canadian Nuclear Projects Limited (CNPL), sought to purchase the site and retain most of the staff. Regrettably, AECL and CNPL were unable to conclude a deal and many brilliant nuclear engineers and scientists were lost to early retirement, universities, and other nuclear facilities around the world. Decommissioning of the site is now underway.

Commercial Applications

AECL’s commercial product, the CANDU reactor, became popular in the 1970s throughout the world. In 1991 construction of two new reactors, called MAPLE, began. These reactors were capable of producing 100% of the world’s supply of medical isotopes. Hundreds of millions of dollars later, the project was mothballed.

Refurbishment work on existing aging reactors remains underway. Current refurbishment work at Bruce Power and Point Lepreau is significantly over budget.

More Problems

In 2007, the NRU was ordered shut down by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) for safety reasons. Rather than comply, AECL took on the CNSC. Eventually, the CNSC was overruled by Parliament and the reactor restarted. Shortly after, a heavy water leak caused a shutdown lasting approximately 14 months.

Labour Relations

Negotiations are needlessly adversarial. Strike votes and deadlines are usually required to conclude a settlement. AECL seems to have no hesitation to break the law in labour matters. Rather than including their unions as partners, as progressive employers do, they treat their employees, and their representatives, as the enemy.


Citing reduced revenue as a result of 14 months of reactor repair, lost isotope revenue, substantial cost overruns in their refurbishment projects, and reduced government subsidies, AECL decided to lay off approximately 40 staff (including 11 CRPEG members). Considering the magnitude of AECL’s payroll and other expenses, the salaries of 40 staff will hardly be noticed on the balance sheet. Severance pay will wipe out any savings achieved from the layoff. However, the cost associated with this disruption, loss of morale, and impact to ongoing research is immeasurable.

These highly-educated, specialized employees, without notice were required to abandon their projects immediately to serve their paid notice period at home. What an insult.

The Future

Despite its grand entrance into the nuclear arena, world-renowned professional staff, cutting-edge facilities, and a large market in its backyard, AECL has bungled its way into the 21st century. AECL management seems unable to adapt to the changing world. Progressive organizations work with the unions representing their most valuable resources. Sadly, AECL seems unable to depart from their “my way or the highway” approach.

Recently, the Government of Canada has announced drastic changes to AECL. Whiteshell and Chalk River Laboratories would remain publicly owned, but with private sector management participation.

The Institute is ready to establish a partnership with AECL’s new management to constructively assist in reclaiming Canada’s top spot on the world nuclear stage.

Contributor: Joe Ahrens, Negotiator