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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the December 2005 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.26, No.4.

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Why This is CANDU Country

by Jeremy Whitlock

There is something comfortably self-evident about the recent declaration that "Canada is CANDU Country". With billions invested over fifty years to advance a technology as unique as poutine and beavertails, what other kind of country could we be?

It's our mouse that roared on the global stage, the David that took market share from Goliath. It is hundreds of private manufacturers tooled up, tens of thousands gainfully employed, and a lineage to the discovery of fission itself.

It's the definition of our regulatory regime and a straitjacket for all other designs, from 10 MW research reactors to 1600 MW PWRs: CANDU is part of our cultural fabric.

We even starved out the competition for CANDU itself within these borders: the Civilian Atomic Power Division (CAPD) of GE Canada, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2005, built the first CANDU at Rolphton and pioneered the CANDU export market in Pakistan, before bowing out of the reactor supply business. In the 1960s this land wasn't big enough for two reactor suppliers, particularly one tied to an American parent company. (GE Canada continues as a fuel supplier in the CANDU industry).

So "CANDU Country" it is, although one suspects that most Canadians would not be so quick to paint their country in that hue. In fact, it is likely that most Canadians would have barely heard of CANDU, and a good fraction of those that did would probably consider it an artifact of the 50s and 60s. They'd be correct, of course, but that's not the point.

Fewer still would know that the Canadian engineering community, on the occasion of its 1987 centenary, identified the CANDU reactor as one the nation's top ten engineering achievements of the preceding century. The lack of mainstream fame is no slight, since Canadians are equally likely to be unaware of the other nine laureates.

True, if asked, they'd probably guess two of them: the CPR railway and the Bombardier snowmobile. The remaining seven are all appropriately deserving: the St. Lawrence seaway, Polymer Corporation's synthetic rubber, the Athabascan oil sands development, Hydro Quebec's high-voltage transmission system, the De Havilland Beaver aircraft, the Alouette satellite, and the trans-Canada telephone network.

Interestingly, a poll of average Canadians would probably find near-unanimous support for nine of the ten being on the list, while CANDU's presence would no doubt stir controversy.

Also interestingly, in 1999 the same engineering community compiled another list of the five "most significant Canadian engineering achievements" of the 20th century, and none of 1987's top ten made the cut. In fact, four of the five winners were relatively new to the scene (the PEI Confederation Bridge, the Canadarm, IMAX, and CPR's new Rogers Pass project). The fifth honouree was the Hopps pacemaker, subsequently chosen through an Angus Reid poll as the one of the top five that made people "most proud to be Canadian".

When CANDU reactors make Angus Reid respondents "proud to be Canadian", then this will truly be "CANDU Country".

In fact, the more people get to know CANDU technology, the more they might find it a metaphor for Canada itself and all that we hold dear. Consider: Although one of the largest power reactor designs, it is mostly empty space dotted with pockets of isolated activity. A federation of pressure tubes, if you will, composed of diverse participants working side by side (thanks to bi-directional fuelling) for the greater harmony.

At the same time there is a challenge of controlling spatial sub-modes, and an ongoing need for regional over-power protection. In the end, however, it is a concept evolved from peaceful rather than military fundamentals, and a concept that continues to effect global change through subtle, long-term interaction (on-line refuelling) rather than brute force.

Come on people, how can you not love this technology?

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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