AECL jobs at Chalk River to be privatized
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited's Chalk River Laboratories is a key nuclear research and development facility.
Some 2,850 federal jobs at Chalk River Laboratories will be privatized once a contractor begins operating the storied nuclear facility next year.
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited will remain a crown corporation of between 50 and 60 administrators after the research establishment moves to a government-owned, contractor-operated (Go-Co) business model.
“The big idea is to move to this new model for Canada but it's a model that has been very successfully implemented in the U.S. and Great Britain,” Dr. Robert Walker, president and chief operating officer of AECL, told the Daily Observer Wednesday.
AECL is undergoing the second phase of an ambitious reorganization that began in 2011 with the sale of the CANDU reactor division. Industry observers anticipate that the private corporation that takes over the management of the laboratories and waste management sites for a six-year contract will transform it into a robust national science and technology laboratory.
“We are going to be creating a customer/supplier relationship with the government,” said Walker.
The current employees at Chalk River will lose their pension plan eligibility and other public service benefits. The contractor will need to deal with compensation, collective agreements and benefits. Walker said he understood the anxiety that employees have with this new venture.
“Employees don't lose the pension that they have earned,” he said. “It will be up to the contractor to put in place a replacement pension system and move forward.”
Responding to the headline in a national newspaper that focused on the privatization aspect, Deep River Mayor David Thompson said Thursday change always brings a level of anxiety, however, all stakeholders in this restructure have indicated this will be a positive development for the 70-year-old lab.
“Privatization will means changes but the reinvestment is going to mean real growth and job opportunities,” said Thompson. “My advice to all of my residents is to hang tight. This is not the time to leave. This is the time to follow this process through.”
Walker added that the key concept will be for the contractor to attract and retain a talented workforce. To do that, they will need to have the pay and benefits to match.
AECL has yet to receive the "request for proposal" (RFP) issued by Public Works and Government Services Canada, the federal agency overseeing the contracting out of Chalk River. The department is working on qualifying potential bidders who meet the technical specifications and national security criteria for such a project. The short list could be announced in the very near future, the president predicted.
“These will be assessed to be very capable companies,” said Walker.
Bidders will then make their submissions with a successful candidate signed to a contract by the summer or fall of 2015. Transfer of control of the laboratory will take place at that time.
Recently, Renfrew County submitted a recommendation to the federal government calling for the creation of a national science and technology laboratory at Chalk River and a commitment from the federal government to co-invest in a new nuclear research reactor. They pointed to American national laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Savannah River, South Carolina, as clear success stories in the Go-Co model. Walker said that by going private, they will be open to markets and technology that earn Chalk River a widespread international reputation much like the labs in the U.S.
“Those names mean something and that's what we are building,” he concluded.
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist