An escalating labour dispute between Candu Energy Inc. and its reactor design team is raising fears that the company will have trouble retaining and attracting the country's top nuclear talent.
More than 800 engineers, scientists and technologists, members of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates who are responsible for the design and occasional caretaking of Canada's world-class reactor, walked out Monday after failing to reach a labour pact with the company. They do not work on the day-to-day operations of the reactors.
Both the union and some observers worry that the labour troubles at Candu, whose reactors provide power for three provinces and countries including China, Argentina and Romania, will widen the industry's existing labour gap.
"If you lose talent, it takes a few years to get it back again," said William Garland, a retired McMaster University professor who works on nuclear education projects in Canada, warning that the industry needs to foster younger workers.
"These older people are not going to stay around forever. We're at a vulnerable point."
The union, in turn, also warned that its members will "scatter" if they have to accept the Candu offer on the table, which it said is not up to par with international standards for nuclear professionals.
"Our members are very mobile and very much sought after by competitors in the industry," said Peter White, president of the SPEA.
Just recently, lead engineer Ayman Saudy left Candu, having worked under its previous owner, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., for 18 years. He had stuck with Candu when it was sold a year ago to SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., but began a new job Monday as senior technical expert with Toronto's Nuclear Safety Solutions.
"I felt my skills were not being used adequately," he said.
Candu would not discuss the specifics of its contract proposal, though spokeswoman Katherine Ward called it "fair, reasonable and competitive."
Mr. White said Candu was seeking too many concessions, and the union would have been willing to accept serious changes to the pension scheme had the company backed off in other areas.
The union said the contract proposed by SNC-Lavalin would widen the salary gap with competitors, reduce vacation entitlements and overtime compensation, and move pensions from defined benefit plans, like their competitors, to defined contribution plans.
Terry Rogers, a professor emeritus at Carleton University who has chaired AECL's research and development advisory board, also warned the situation could prevent Candu from hiring new talent.
The federal government sold Candu to SNC-Lavalin a year ago for $15-million, having suffered years of losses.
At the time, plans called for cutting 465 science and engineering jobs, but the union said it has so far avoided the losses. Instead, some 200 people took buyout packages while 50 others left of their own accord.
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said she was "disappointed" the two sides hadn't reached an agreement, but that she wanted to "reassure Canadians that they should not experience power shortages as a result of the work stoppage."