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A control room is shown at the AECL nuclear facility at Chalk River, Ont. The aging facility has been shut down for repairs since May and is not scheduled to start again before late April 2010.

The head of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. says he would like a restructuring plan put in place that strengthens the Crown corporation and allows its Candu division to stand on its own internationally.

AECL chief executive Hugh MacDiarmid said Thursday that the company wants to compete in the global market and is hoping planned changes to the company's Candu reactor division come quickly to reassure foreign clients.

The federal government in December invited companies to signal their interest in whether they would consider buying into AECL's Candu reactor division.

MacDiarmid said it is important to reassure international customers that the plan "is designed to strengthen AECL, not simply to sell it off," he said.

"I see a very important role for me is to speak on behalf of AECL and assuring our international customers that we are going to be around for the long haul," he said after delivering a speech at the Canadian Nuclear Association's annual meeting.

There are 48 reactors based on the CANDU design in operation, under construction or undergoing refurbishment around the world. In Canada, there are 18 in Ontario, one in Quebec, and one in New Brunswick currently undergoing a $1.4-billion refurbishment.

Candu division employs 1,600

MacDiarmid said he was confident the process was being managed by capable people and the best decision would be made "when the time is right."

He acknowledged AECL's 4,800 workers "need to have some assurances in the long term and the future" and said he was meeting with employees at town halls to discuss the potential changes.

About 1,600 of AECL's employees work in the Candu division, while about 2,900 work in research.

Scientists and engineers at AECL have urged the government to exercise caution about privatizing parts of the Crown corporation, with the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates urging at least some government control.

The move to encourage private investment has drawn the ire of opposition parties, who worry the government is prepared to hold a fire sale of AECL's assets while its value is low.

Chalk River reactor repairs 43% done

On Wednesday federal Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis said the decision to open the reactor business up to investors was an attempt to strengthen the corporation's global reach and reduce the financial risks for taxpayers.

The other issue plaguing AECL is the shutdown of the aging NRU reactor at Chalk River, Ont., which produced one-third of the world's medical isotopes until it was shut down last May when it was found to be leaking radioactive water.

AECL said in a statement Wednesday that repairs were 43 per cent complete and that preparations for the final repair sequence are underway. The company said the earliest estimated return to service for the reactor is the end of April.

With files from Krista Erickson