Friday, December 18, 2009

The keystone cops formally put AECL up for sale

"Federal government formally offers AECL reactor division to bidders." So the Harper gang has moved on selling AECL, now that Parliament is on break (or facing yet another prorogue). Democracy, don't ya know. Now that those pesky MPs are not around to make noise, onwards with the ideological agenda. This process has been informally underway since May or thereabouts, with some notable fumbles along the way.

Remember this misstep from Teneycke, for example, as CP helpfully points out:
...the government may have undercut its own bargaining position when Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief spokesman described the Crown corporation as a "dysfunctional" $30-billion "sink-hole" last June.

That same month, the Ontario government put off a decision on new reactor construction after deciding all the bids - including one for an untried, next-generation AECL reactor - were too costly.
Yes, some of us noticed that, this summer. The AECL "sink hole" blunder and the Ontario fallout occurred not too long before Mr. Teneycke sailed off into the corporate p.r. world. Losing the Ontario commitment to purchase reactors was a huge loss of value to AECL while in the midst of a privatization process. In fact, Ontario's future purchase is still up in the air:
But he said the price Ottawa will fetch is largely dependent on when – and if – Ontario is prepared to renew its own fleet of aging reactors. AECL will be hard-pressed to persuade potential foreign customers to purchase its new Advanced CANDU Reactor if it can't close a deal in its home province, say industry observers.
Nevertheless, perhaps the keystone cops are thinking AECL may command a better price for a stake given the new "deal" brokered in India recently for Canadian nuclear business there. With a deal to enable AECL to get into India, whose energy market is said to be worth between $25 and $50 billion over the next 20 years, that may have perked up the sell-off process. As the CP report notes, "Several companies have expressed tentative interest in buying a piece of AECL, including Montreal's SNC-Lavalin and Areva Group of France." Or GE Westinghouse in the U.S.?

If it's a foreign buyer, that has implications for jobs and Canadian control of nuclear technology. Particularly since they're willing to sell AECL's commercial division up to a 100% stake. The embattled Minister Lisa Raitt - under a few ethics and other investigations - professed yesterday that the government is committed to keeping the 30,000 jobs the industry provides. But if a foreign company buys AECL, like Areva or Westinghouse, what guarantees are there that jobs won't be lost? Look at Stelco, for example, the answer is none. Ask your cabinet colleague Tony Clement, Ms. Raitt, what the "commitments" from U.S. Steel have meant. Tony's been busy writing sternly worded letters and litigating with the foreign owners. So, depending on who the buyer is, particularly foreign, we should look very critically and skeptically upon their shiny commitments. And you know, maybe there's a lesson there.

The atomic engineers have the same concerns for Canadian jobs and the loss of valuable Canadian intellectual property. But, the Harper government didn't care when Nortel's IP was being dispensed when there was a prominent and willing Canadian tech giant available to keep it domestically, why would they act otherwise here?

And a very important point to keep in mind, not that it matters one iota to this government, but the government's own commissioned public opinion research shows that the Canadian public does not like the privatization of AECL one bit, particularly the notion of foreign control of Canada's nuclear technology:
* Nearly three in four Canadians agree (72%) that since AECL has been a Crown Corporation for over 50 years it should not now become a private corporation;
* Seven in ten Canadians (70%) say that AECL would benefit Canadians more as a Crown corporation than as a private corporation;
* Seven in ten Canadians (70%) say they would worry about the safety of Canada's nuclear technology if AECL became a fully private corporation;
* The focus group findings were largely consistent with these results. Most participants expressed discomfort with the notion of AECL becoming private;
* For these participants, a private AECL (even a partially private AECL for those most opposed) would entail an unacceptable loss of control over our nuclear technology;
* The nuclear technology used in Canada be retained in companies owned and controlled by Canadians (84%); and,
* New nuclear plants should be based on Canadian-developed technology (73%).
The spinners will say, but Canadians really don't know what AECL does, when you press them. But what they do know...are the basic concepts of nuclear safety and pride of ownership.

Despite such clear sentiment, the Harper government is bent on privatizing this asset, that's for sure. But it's not necessarily what is good for Canada, Canadian jobs and the future of this industry in which Canada has, again, historically been a leader.