Major layoffs at AECL

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is bracing for a mass layoff that would cut 900 employees, according to a memo obtained by the Telegraph-Journal.

This would eliminate about 40 per cent of the company’s workforce, says a union official.

Michael Ivanco is the vice-president of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates, which represents many employees for AECL. A couple hundred of those employees are New Brunswickers, he said.

However, he didn’t yet know how many of the proposed layoffs would affect New Brunswick employees.

“That’s all to be determined … There are a lot of negotiations that will have to happen,” he said.

He said the union will be sitting down with management to discuss ways to decrease the impact. One method, Ivanco said, is to offer older employees termination packages.

Ivanco visited New Brunswick a couple weeks ago and said the majority of AECL’s workforce in the province is made up of young people, mostly in their 20s and early 30s.

But he said even if a lot of younger people keep their jobs, problems remain. The company would lose a lot of experience and years in the field.

“It’s a very narrow line to walk,” he said.

For the younger employees who will be set adrift, post-AECL options might be few and far between, he said.

A lot of projects are just wrapping up, Ivanco said. The Bruce Power Restart project and a project in South Korea are coming to an end, and the Point Lepreau project will be done in about a year, he said.

After that, there are a few projects on the horizon, but they won’t be hiring for a few years.

“There’s a lot of work five years down the road, but when you look one year down, maybe not so much.”

The layoffs are set to happen between July and September. Ivanco said within a month there will be a little more clarity for the non-unionized staff and the managers. Uncertainty will last longer for the unionized staff, which will be negotiating more with the new owners.

“It’s been quite an embarrassment to be so over budgeted and so behind schedule,” Ivanco said.

The memo revealed about 310 scientists and engineers, 155 technologists, 240 non-unionized support staff, 45 draftspersons and 150 people in management will be let go. The layoff announcement comes in the wake of the federal government’s recent $15 million deal with SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian engineering firm.

Previously published July 1, 2011; Telegraph-Journal, Daily Gleaner

No safe radiation, expert says

Daniel Rudka looks like he’s a nuclear bomb survivor. Wrinkled, milky scars flow up his arms past his neck and discolour his pockmarked face. He walks with a cane, because he can’t always trust his radiation-weakened bones to keep him upright.

But Rudka is not the victim of a nuclear bomb, accident or meltdown. In fact, he’s never even been involved with any manner of power plant mishap. He simply used to work at a plant in Port Hope, Ontario, that constructs fuel rods for nuclear reactors. But at one point, he spent three weeks scooping powdered uranium with a plastic bucket that might have been obtained from an ice machine, while wearing a T-shirt, coveralls cut off at the bicep and plastic gloves that weren’t lead-lined.

“You didn’t have to bomb me to still have the same effect,” he says.

Whether it comes from nuclear weapons or nuclear power, radiation’s effects on the human body are the same, veteran antinuclear campaigner Dr. Helen Caldicott told a Mar. 26 conference organized by Physicians for Global Survival Canada.

No radiation is safe, the 73-year-old Australian physician and author argued during a “Facing off for Social Justice in a Militarized World” session of the conference, which explored issues ranging from handling radioactive waste to the public health consequences of radiation leaks, such as those now being experienced at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant complex in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami which devastated parts of northern Japan.

Caldicott called radioactive waste one of the major unaddressed problems associated with nuclear reactors.

“There’s no container that can hold radioactive waste for more than a hundred years. Concrete cracks, plastics are no good, and iron disintegrates as it rusts,” she told the conference.

But radon is highly soluble, and once it leaks into the ecosystem, the radiation becomes bio-concentrated as it moves up through the food chain. It is also cumulative, meaning that later generations are more likely to experience the effects.

Caldicott cited Fallujah, Iraq, where it is alleged that the United States and United Kingdom used depleted uranium ammunitions during a 2004 raid, as an example of the long-term consequences. Fallujah’s recorded birth defects have become so prevalent that 80% of babies are born as cyclops, Caldicott said, adding that doctors have told women to stop having children.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency promotes nuclear reactors as a clean, green and safe solution to the ever-increasing global need for electricity, exalting nuclear reactors, while condemning nuclear weapons is hypocritical, Caldicott added. “They say: ‘You can have a nuclear reactor but you mustn’t build a bomb. We’ve got all the bombs and you can’t have them. But here’s a bomb factory’.”

Caldicott argued that government should take the money spent on nuclear power — $12 billion to $15 billion per reactor — and use it to refit all homes and buildings with solar panels.

Dr. Michael Dworkind, president of Physicians for Global Survival Canada, echoed the call for the elimination of both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, saying it would be “the ultimate in preventive medicine.”

The health consequences of radiation poisoning, which have long been demonstrated, can include hair loss, recurring infections, anemia, weight loss and cancer.

Rudka, who worked at the Port Hope plant, then called Zircatec, from 1993 to 1995, says he still periodically vomits in the mornings as his body goes through “stages of decay.”

His is a classic case of the consequences of exposure to radiation and another example of why “nuclear is not the answer,” Caldicott said.

First published April 4, 2011; Canadian Medical Association Journal