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Canadian Switches on Romania's CANDU Reactor

Ottawa, April 16 (RFE/RL) - Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien inaugurates Romania's first nuclear reactor on Wednesday. The project is a decade behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

The Canadian designed CANDU - short for Canadian Deuterium -reactor is part of what is supposed to be a five-reactor complex at Cernavoda, a site 160 kilometers east of Bucharest on the Danube River.

The project has been plagued by controversy since its beginning. In the mid-1960s, the regime of Nicolai Ceausescu started negotiations with the Canadians and the Russians on nuclear reactor purchases. The CANDU uses natural, rather than enriched, uranium as a fuel and heavy water as a coolant. The Soviet-designed VVER-1000 reactor operated on enriched uranium and pressurized water.

Canada, anxious to secure a sale of its CANDU reactor, offered generous terms. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited - AECL - had not sold a CANDU for nearly a decade and wanted to prove the commercial viability of its design in the competitive but, at the time, stagnant international nuclear reactor market. Romania also has its own uranium deposits and felt it would be able to produce its own heavy water.

In 1978, Romania signed an agreement with AECL to build one CANDU reactor at Cernavoda and Canada offered a 1,000-million dollar loan to finance construction. The agreement covered licensing, design, technical assistance and equipment provision. AECL entered into an agreement with an Italian firm, Ansaldo, to provide steam and feedwater systems in the turbine building. The government of Romania was to retain overall control of the project. In 1981, an agreement was signed to build a second CANDU reactor.

It wasn't long after the first ground was broken - in the early 1980s - that the problems began. First, Ceausescu decided he wanted the complex to be larger than the original plan and called for the building of up to 16 nuclear reactors at the site. That was eventually scaled back to five. Then, in 1983, Canada froze the loan money because Romania was not making payments. Ceausescu retaliated by imposing 100 per cent countertrade, leaving Canadian firms with some 400 million dollars worth of contracts no choice but to accept Romanian-made goods as payment.

The Canadians complained about being denied access to the construction site and threatened "to pull the plug if changes weren't made," according to Ken Petrunik, Vice-President of AECL, who has been involved with Cernavoda since the beginning. All work on the site was halted in November of 1989 - just a month before Ceausescu was overthrown - when the AECL team discovered that documents covering welding and wiring had been falsified and that much of the work was substandard. It was also revealed that Romania was using slave labor - mostly ethnic Hungarians and conscripts - at the site.

The International Atomic Energy Agency - IAEA - stepped in in the fall of 1990. After inspecting the work, it called for a one-year work stoppage to correct the "defects" it found: improperly poured concrete, substandard welding and faulty wiring.

Romania's national energy agency, RENEL, then asked Canada for more money and specialists to finish the project. AECL and Ansaldo agreed to put up an additional 400 million dollars but only if they had total control over the project and brought in their own workers. RENEL agreed and the work resumed.

In 1993, the IAEA carried out another inspection of the site and while that report has never been released, the agency did say, at the time, that there had been "progess" made in fixing defects. But it also said there was a need for nuclear safety policies to be put into place at Cernavoda.

Construction work on the first CANDU reactor was completed last fall. Earlier this year, 335 tonnes of Canadian heavy water was shipped to Cernavoda to feed into coolant channels surrounding the reactor core.

Roland Boucher, the AECL project director, says "about 100 Canadians stayed on to train Romanian personnel and to oversee criticality tests." Criticality means the first-time start-up of a nuclear reactor. It is the beginning of a gradual "step-up" in power generation that is required before a reactor goes into full service. Those tests were started earlier this month.

Boucher says it will "probably take until August before the reactor is up to its 705-megawatt capacity and gets hooked into the national electricity grid." This will meet about nine per cent of Romania's energy needs and save an estimated 200 million dollars a year in energy costs, he says.

Work on the second CANDU reactor is about one-third finished and its final cost is estimated at between 710 and 1,000 million dollars. Romania expects to finance part of the cost by selling electricity to neighboring countries. The price tag on the just-completed first reactor stands at about 2,200 million dollars (nearly double the cost of building it today). And there are questions being raised about the CANDU design. In recent years, CANDU reactors operating in Canada (and India) have been plagued by heavy water leaks and pressure tubes that have slipped out of alignment, resulting in lengthy and costly shut-downs.

Boucher and Petrunik say they are confident that work on the second reactor will proceed more smoothly than the first one. Meanwhile, units three, four and five are empty concrete shells.