Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Conservatives self-destruct over nuclear plant

Gary Lunn is taking quite a hammering these days. The natural resources minister and Victoria area MP has got seriously on the wrong side of the national press.
If you read the papers — especially the two national newspapers — you’re probably wondering how Lunn could qualify for a driver’s licence, let alone a cabinet job.
He’s been soundly bashed for his role in the Chalk River nuclear reactor fiasco.
Here’s the stripped-down version of events. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a federal Crown corporation, operates a 50-year-old nuclear reactor at Chalk River that produces about two-thirds of the radioactive isotopes used in medical tests, like cancer screening.
You can’t store them, so no one has reserves; if the supply is disrupted problems mount quickly.
The Chalk River reactor was supposed to be replaced 15 years ago; the federal government has spent $300 million on the project. But the replacements aren’t ready.
People are nervous about nuclear energy. So the government set up the Nuclear Safety Commission as an independent licensing agency. Its job is to make sure nuclear reactors meet licensing requirements.
Chalk River didn’t. The back-up cooling system needed to protect against a meltdown wasn’t in place.
When the commission learned the problem hadn’t been fixed during a maintenance shutdown in November, it refused to allow the plant to start up. The licence requirements had to be met.
The government seemed to take a long time to figure out what this meant. Lunn’s office was sent an e-mail, but didn’t grasp its significance.
Then everyone went into panic. People’s cancer tests were cancelled; other countries wanted answers. Lunn sought advice from experts, who told him the plant had operated without the back-up system for decades and there was no increased safety risk. Everyone was clamouring for the isotopes.
So he called Linda Keen, the head of the commission, and pressured her to allow the plant to open, despite the violations. She looked at the commission’s mandate – public safety – and couldn’t justify allowing the plant to operate when it couldn’t meet the licensing requirements.
Then things got ugly. Prime Minister Stephen Harper implied Keen was out to make the Conservatives look bad because she had been appointed by the Liberal government.
It was an unfair charge; Keen had a career in government as a non-partisan manager.
Worse, Harper’s comments revealed that he knew the smear was false. His purpose, he said, was to convince the Liberals not to try to score political points over the shutdown. A pre-emptive dirty trick, you might say.
Ultimately, the government did what it should have done all along. It asked Parliament to pass legislation allowing the plant to re-open despite the licensing problems. All parties supported the proposal. Problem solved.
But by that point, Lunn and the government looked bad. The whole point of the Nuclear Safety Commission is to enforce the licensing requirements in the interest of public safety. Part of the purpose is to take political pressure out of the equation.
When Lunn called Keen and tried to pressure her, he brought politics back into issues of nuclear safety. That’s wrong.
Things got stranger, and worse. Lunn then wrote a letter – leaked to the media – to Keen asking her why she shouldn’t be fired.
The day before Keen and Lunn were both to appear before a Commons committee, Lunn did fire here — at 11 p.m.
Harper says Keen was fired because she showed poor judgment in not appreciating the seriousness of the isotope shortage and finding a way to keep the plant open.
But the commission is legally charged with ensuring nuclear safety.
The bigger problem is that it looks like Keen is really being fired because she wouldn’t cave into Lunn’s political pressure.
And that sends a message to all the other independent commissions and agencies that are supposed to protect the public interest free from political pressure. Obey the politicians in power, or face firing.
Footnote: The whole affair also drew public attention to years of neglect of reactors at Chalk River and huge spending on new reactors that don’t work. And it raised questions about the regulation of the nuclear industry at a time when it’s finally hoping for new power projects in Canada.


Anonymous said...

"Lunn’s office was sent an e-mail, but didn’t grasp its significance."

The Auditor-General also put out a report in September 2006 describing the mess at Chalk River - something Lunn seems to have conveniently forgotten in his rush to smear Keen.

Whistleblowers BC said...

It's classic self-serving behaviour of government officials towards someone (Keen) who finds themselves having to defend their actions and unwhittingly and unwillingly becoming a whistleblower to defend their professional integrity and reputation and standing up for safety for citizens. Hmmm, if one looks at Ms. Keen's credentials and experience vs. Lunn's, I think it's pretty clear who the smart money would be on.

I hope Lunn's constituents remember his bullying tactics and bungling of nuclear safety at election time. His negligence, laziness and ignorance of someone holding such an important post is telling as to what kind of a political representative he is. Same with Harper. We're not talking about springing a leak from a bicycle tire here, this is NUCLEAR safety for everyone in this country and our neighbours to the south. Added to this a decade, or more, of safety risks and concerns, Keen made the right decision and voters should remember how Harper's government handled this issue and Keen's courage and integrity in representing our safety. I wonder what the earnings were for the last decade for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.? Why didn't they do the right thing and make the required safety upgrades?

Anonymous said...

Poor reporting clouds this story even more. The back-up power supply that was the safety issue was in fact a _third_ back-up power supply intended to bolster the safety factor. AECL should have gotten it installed earlier as directed, but don't use the notion of nuclear safety to downplay the bureaucratic red tape that led to the shutdown. Good engineering judgement would have balanced the risks of operating without the 3rd back-up in place against the risks to patient lives. It is not apparent that any such analysis took place. There is also no evidence of consideration given to alternate remedies to AECL's non-compliance. What about imposing fines, followed by increased fines if the upgrade was not completed by a new deadline? Why was a shutdown the necessary step?

A final consideration is that the committee running the independent regulator lacks professional credibility. Ms. Keen had no background in nuclear energy or industrial safety prior to assuming her position. That makes it fairly easy to label her as a mere political appointee. It would be a more difficult assertion to make against an expert in nuclear safety.

Anonymous said...

I see this is slightly differently. Clearly this lack of a backup cooling system problem according to Mr. Wilcocks article; existed for “decades” the question naturally raised if the problems was so serious that the Nuclear Safety Commission refused to allow the plant to re-open; than how the hell were they operating like this for all those decades and where was Nuclear Safety Commissions during these decades ? I would suggest if the problem was that serious and yet they were unaware of it one would suggest they were not doing their jobs. Personally I am sick and tired of unelected appointees not doing their jobs and not being accountable to anyone

From everything that has been reported about this Chalk River facility it is clear that a mass state of deterioration has existed for years and yet all those years under Federal Liberal neglect and not a peep from their Liberal appointed chair Lind Keen. Suddenly the Conservatives are in power and low and behold Chalk Ricer is a threat to public safety. If that doesn’t at least have some smelly political overtones that I suggest it is time that Mr.Willcock’s takes off his increasingly left leaning bi-focals

Anonymous said...

The Canadian Medical Association Journal states: 'Canada could have avoided the recent medical isotope crisis if supplier MDS Nordion had joined international efforts to co-ordinate global production.'

Hmm... I wonder if MDS Nordion makes donations to any national political parties?

Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine
President Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain
claims foreign isotope producers were
not capable of picking up the slack. But
others, like University of Texas public
affairs professor Alan J. Kuperman, argue
MDS Nordion has no interest in international
contingency planning.
“They see themselves as the big dog.
They are not going to share information
with the small ones nipping at
their heels.”

“There is all sorts of surplus capacity,”
says Kuperman. “Nordion and
AECL [Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.]
obviously knew there was an option of
going to other suppliers … Instead, they
went to the public and the Canadian
government. That was misleading and,
one could argue, socially irresponsible.”