The federal government is restructuring Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and may sell a stake in its commercial reactor division.

Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt said Thursday the goal is to strengthen the nuclear reactor business — which produces the CANDU reactor — so it can better compete globally.

In the global reactor business, AECL, which is a Crown corporation, faces competition from foreign players such as General Electric in the United States and France's Areva.

The government has hired N.M. Rothschild & Sons to develop a restructuring plan and provide financial advice. David Leith, a former deputy chairman and head of investment, corporate and merchant banking at CIBC World Markets, has also been tapped as an adviser to Raitt.

Raitt said the company's research-and-development division, Chalk River Laboratories, will continue to be government-owned, but with private-sector management.

She said the restructuring is not related to the ongoing shutdown of the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River.

Raitt said a review of AECL that began 18 months ago found that the company's mandate and structure hampered its development. She also said the CANDU and R&D divisions have distinctly different needs.

Liberals, NDP blast plan

The government plan drew swift reaction from opposition MPs.

"What we see now is an announcement that, first, for the first time ever, [there is] open talk of privatizing AECL. And secondly we see talk of fireside sales in a recession," Liberal MP David McGuinty said. "This is mismanagement on a colossal scale."

New Democrat MP Nathen Cullen accused the government of trying to "hack up AECL for bargain basement prices" during an economic and medical crisis.

"These financial geniuses think this is a good time for a fire sale," he told the House of Commons during Thursday's question period.

Raitt responded by saying the New Democrats aren't supporters of nuclear power and have made up their minds before reading the commissioned report.

AECL has about 4,800 employees, including 2,900 in research and 1,600 at its CANDU division.