The head of the union that represents engineers and scientists at Canada's nuclear Crown corporation - including about 100 at Point Lepreau - says the pending sale of Atomic Energy of Canada could trigger a "brain drain" of Canada's skilled nuclear workforce.
In an interview, Michael Ivanco also said the proposed sale of AECL's nuclear reactor division could negatively impact Saint John's so-called centre of excellence for nuclear training.
Ivanco, who represents over 1,200 AECL engineers, scientists and technicians, says the proposed sale of AECL is looming over his membership because details of the transaction are scant.
Back in December, the Harper government began formally seeking offers, or "investor proposals", for the AECL reactor division.
At the time, then-Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt pitched the sale of the heavily subsidized Crown corporation as an environmentally friendly, emissions-free buy in a global market experiencing a nuclear renaissance.
The reactor division, said Raitt at the time, "needs strategic investors to take full advantage of this opportunity, strengthen its global presence and reduce the financial risks carried by taxpayers.''
But Ivanco, vice-president of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates, says he worries the government is trying to quickly dump AECL for political reasons.
"We're afraid they want to get rid of the file because it's a political headache," said the AECL scientist from Ottawa, where he was attending the Canadian Nuclear Association's annual meeting.
"Maybe they're losing sight of the big picture."
Ivanco argues the nuclear industry is one of the few sectors in Canada where every aspect is handled in-house: from mining the uranium to designing, building, operating and decommissioning the reactors.
"I can't think of another industry in Canada where we do everything," he said.
"We have very few things that are our own that have been successful. This is one of them."
According to Ivanco, the nuclear industry employs 60,000 people in Canada. And he insists there is still money to be made from exporting Canadian nuclear technology to the world.
"Most people don't talk about it because it's not popular, but a lot of wealth is generated through this industry," he said.
"The main asset of the nuclear division is the people: the engineers and scientists and technicians and technologists," he continued.
"This is a model that can work. I'm not saying privatization is necessarily a bad thing. There could be a win-win situation out there, but no one is talking to us."
When announcing the government's plan for AECL in December, Raitt touted Canada's nuclear industry as employing 30,000 people and said the government is "committed to making sure these jobs are retained and more are created."
The current natural resources minister, Christian Paradis, was not made available for comment Friday.
But Ivanco says the AECL uncertainty also hangs over Saint John's so-called centre of excellence for nuclear technology.
Essentially, the plan calls for Saint John to be a hub of technical expertise as the nearby Point Lepreau Candu-6 reactor undergoes its mid-life overhaul (which is now significantly behind schedule and over budget). As the first such reactor to be refurbished, Point Lepreau is seen as a training ground for engineers preparing for similar Candu-6 refits, like in South Korea and Quebec.
"I haven't heard that project talked about lately," Ivanco said. "It has certainly fallen off the radar."
But Dale Coffin, an AECL spokesman, says the centre is already up and running.
In fact, two groups of engineers from Korea have already trained in Saint John to prepare for the overhaul of Candu units in Wolsong.
"In a sense, the centre of excellence is functioning as it was intended to," Coffin said Friday.
AECL has a profitable international service operation, with 18 Candu reactors currently working or being refurbished around the world.
The research-and-technology division of the Crown corporation, including the Chalk River laboratories and its troubled medical isotope production, are not part of the government sale.