The Glace Bay Heavy Water Plant

Cape Breton’s Lost Nuclear Dream

The Glace Bay Heavy Water Plant was constructed in the 1960s with substantial support from the provincial government. Many believed it would usher in a new era of growth for Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, but the plant was fraught with problems from the start.

Following the Second World War, the federal government sought to develop nuclear energy in Canada. The Crown Corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), was established in 1952 for nuclear energy research and development. By 1962, AECL had the first Canadian Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) nuclear power plant up and running. The reactors required deuterium – also known as heavy water – imported from the United States. With an eye toward growth, AECL called for tenders for a heavy water plant in Canada. The tender drew the attention of major international companies including Irving Oil and British-American Oil. Nova Scotians were enticed by the prospect of a new industry, and the province saw an opportunity to modernize. In 1963, the newly-established Cape Breton company, Deuterium of Canada Corp (DCC), submitted a bid for the contract. Using sea water as their source, DCC projected that the Glace Bay Heavy Water Plant would produce 200 tons of heavy water yearly at $20.50 per ton and with guaranteed quantity. DCC won the bid and began negotiations with AECL.

DCC was not alone in the project. In light of their bid for the contract, Industrial Estates Limited (IEL) – a Crown Corporation of the Province of Nova Scotia responsible for industrial development – acquired controlling interest of DCC. Never before had IEL made such a large investment in a new company in Nova Scotia. Supporting IEL’s efforts were provincial Members of Parliament who exerted political pressure in Legislature to ensure that the plan for Glace Bay would pass. DCC’s competitors sought to build deuterium plants elsewhere in Canada, and their success would have meant a lost opportunity for Nova Scotia. 

Construction of the Glace Bay Heavy Water Plant began in September of 1964. The project was projected to cost $28.5 million to which the Province of Nova Scotia committed $12 million. The plant was also given a three-year tax holiday to help its early development.

Before construction was complete, plans for expansion were floated. In a press release from January 1966, Hon. Allan J. MacEachen expressed cautious optimism regarding an expansion, stating that, “with additional facilities an output involving 200 more tons is quite possible. But it is doubtful whether production capacity could be stretched to say an additional 375 tons without taking on real risks.”

Constructions costs were growing at an alarming rate and delays persisted. By 1965, the price tag was revised to $34 million, and two years later, it was $63.5 million. DCC was running out of funds to complete the plant. In 1966, not only were they unable to repay the $12 million they owed to the province, but they also borrowed a further $15 million. Nova Scotian taxpayers were shouldering the cost of the Glace Bay facility.

Although the Glace Bay Heavy Water Plant was completed in July 1967, it did not produce heavy water. The plant's equipment had many problems including corrosion caused by the sea water. The continual setbacks were beginning to draw the public’s attention and reflect poorly on the CANDU program at large. In 1968, the AECL was forced to buy deuterium from the United States because the Glace Bay plant had failed to deliver on its contract.

1969 and 1970 would bring no relief. Despite DCC’s efforts to resolve the plant’s problems, it produced no deuterium. In response to the non-delivery of DCC’s contracts, the company was hit with law suits from unpaid contractors and the Province of Nova Scotia. By this stage, the cost to Nova Scotians had reached approximately $100 million given the further $40 million invested by the province and mounting interest fees.

Despite the federal government’s commitment of $42 million in 1970 to help the plant recover, DCC could not make it work. Nova Scotia’s newly-elected Liberal government, critical of the policies that birthed the plant, abandoned their commitment to make it operational. In 1971, AECL was tasked with rehabilitating the plant and took over ownership in 1975. In 1976, the restored plant did produce heavy water, but it was too little too late. The demand for heavy water was not what AECL had expected, and by the summer of 1985, the plant was closed. The Glace Bay Heavy Water Plant sat idle for more than 20 years and was finally dismantled in 2013.