VANCOUVER/TORONTO (Reuters) - Nuclear engineers at the Candu Energy subsidiary of Canada's SNC-Lavalin Group Inc went on strike on Monday in a contract dispute and no talks to end the walkout are scheduled, their union said.
The engineers, who design and perform major service at CANDU reactors in Canada and around the world, are not responsible for day-to-day reactor operations.
The walkout is not expected to disrupt power supply unless the strikers set up picket lines outside nuclear plants and operational staff refuse to cross them.
About 700 engineers joined 144 others who have been on strike for five weeks, said Michael Ivanco, a senior scientist and vice president at the union, the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates (SPEA). The engineers comprise some 60 percent of Candu Energy's 1,400 employees.
About 15 percent of Canada's electricity comes from nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Association. Most of the reactors are in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, and they supply about half of the province's electricity. All nuclear power plants in Canada were designed by Candu.
There are also Candu-designed nuclear power plants operating in India, Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea, Romania and China.
The engineers have been without a contract since January 1, 2011. Key sticking points in talks for a new deal have been compensation, pensions and seniority, Ivanco said.
"The most immediate impact that I can see is if the strike goes any length of time, people will scatter," Ivanco said. "In this industry, although new reactors are not being sold, there's a tremendous amount of work, and a lot of competitors looking to snap up people."
Ivanco said the union is picketing near Candu Energy's head office in Mississauga, Ontario, just west of Toronto.
"We're assessing where else we're going to picket this week," he said. "We have a lot of places where ... we have a legitimate right to picket, which includes power stations. It includes Chalk River."
The nuclear reactor at Chalk River, in Ontario, supplies raw material used by Nordion Inc to produce crucial medical isotopes.
Nordion spokeswoman Tamra Benjamin declined to speculate on the possibility of picketing, but said in a statement that supplying medical isotopes is considered an essential service. In Canada, essential service status limits a union's legal rights to disrupt some important activities.
Another possible venue for pickets is the Darlington nuclear plant, located east of Toronto. The facility, owned by the province, fills about 20 percent of Ontario's electricity needs.
"I don't want to raise any alarms. We are not picketing there right now," Ivanco said.
Other Candu reactor operations in Ontario include the provincially owned Pickering site and the privately owned Bruce Power operations.
The province's power operations could be affected if SPEA set up pickets outside nuclear plants and workers from other unions decided not to cross SPEA's picket lines.
A spokesman for the Power Workers' Union (PWU), whose members operate and maintain Ontario's nuclear power plants, and make up about 60 percent of their workforce, said he did not think it would come to this.
Whether PWU members were "sympathetic to difficulties that SPEA is having with SNC ... they have a collective agreement and they would be required to go to work," said PWU spokesman John Spracket.
"I would think they would live up to their legal responsibilities," he said.
Canada's Labour Minister Lisa Raitt encouraged Candu Energy and the striking workers to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
"I want to reassure Canadians that they should not experience power shortages as a result of the work stoppage, " she said in a statement.
A government official said Raitt was monitoring the situation closely and continued to provide the services of a federal mediator.
Katherine Ward, a spokeswoman for Candu Energy, said the strike was having no impact on "priority customer commitments" as the company had "extensive" contingency plans in place.
The SPEA workers became employees of SNC-Lavalin in October 2011 when the federal government sold off the commercial business of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, which designed the CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) reactor, to a unit of SNC for just C$15 million plus royalties.
Ward said Candu Energy was "more than willing to go back to the table" but no further talks are planned.
Ivanco said the union had made a "huge concession" by agreeing to shift members to an interim defined contribution pension fund from a defined benefit plan. "They have taken nothing off the table," he said.
When asked about the strike, Canadian Industry Minister Christian Paradis told reporters on a conference call: "We sold the CANDU sector to SNC-Lavalin to make sure that we would keep the sector sustainable in the future.
"I am confident they will be able to solve their matters..."
Stock of SNC, one of the world's largest engineering companies, closed 20 Canadian cents higher at C$38.41 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Monday afternoon.
The stock is down nearly 34 percent in the past year as Canadian police investigate allegations of bribery and improper payments at the Montreal-based company. SNC's chief executive quit in March amid a mysterious payments scandal. (Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Peter Galloway)