Harper's Melt-down: Trying to make sense of the nuke fiasco

Elizabeth May

The firing of Linda Keen as President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is sending shock waves around the world. Now Canada is one of only two nations that puts its nuclear industry watchdog function in the hands of its nuclear industry. The other is Iran.

There are many levels at which this mess must be analyzed. Let me take a stab at two aspects of the intertwined issues -- the questions of public policy in firing a regulator and the issues of actual reactor safety and supply of medical radio isotopes.

As a matter of public policy and the rule of law, independent, quasi-judicial bodies do not take orders from Ministers of the Crown. The kinds of agencies I refer to here are those like the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the National Energy Board, the CRTC. Political interference in their decision-making processes is unacceptable. It is usually a firing offence for a minister to be found to have interfered. Lunn’s call to the President of the CNSC on December 8th was highly improper.

It was deeply shocking, indeed scandalous, for Prime Minister Harper to personalize and politicize the attacks on the CNSC and its President Linda Keen. In the House before Christmas, he referred to all the Commission members as “Liberal appointees,” as though the fact they were appointed by a Liberal government tainted their independence. In fact, of the five Commission members, one had been appointed by the Harper government. The accusation that they were “Liberal appointees” violated principles of government-appointees to the civil service being explicitly non-political. If every government took Harper’s approach, there would be a wholesale purge of the civil service in every change of government. It is a hallmark of our respected institutions that a professional civil service, the judiciary and quasi-judicial boards and tribunals are not seen as political. (that is, until Prime Minister Harper’s paranoia-drenched style of governing.)

The next level at which personalizing the attack on Linda Keen as President was bizarre and inappropriate is that she personally makes no unilateral decisions. If she communicated that the CNSC insisted that license requirements by met, then she did so on behalf of the Commission. Cheryl Gallant, Conservative MP’s statements on “As it Happens” that Linda Keen was not “presidential” in her handling of the isotope crisis is absurd. She is (was) the head of a regulatory commission. She was not to behave as some sort of czar.

Now to the radioactive mess of unaccountability that is AECL. A quick review of the unfolding “medical isotope crisis.”

1) The NRU reactor at Chalk River is over 50 years old. It is operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, a Crown Corporation. Closing for even routine maintenance should not have occurred without a contingency plan, alerting the other manufacturers of medical radio-isotopes that they should be prepared to boost production.

2) The reactor closed on November 18 for routine maintenance without any contingency plan. Then the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, discovered that the reactor was operating illegally, having ignored license requirements for emergency back-ups for additional pumps. CNSC told AECL they could not re-open until they met license requirements. AECL still did not alert the government that it needed to make contingency plans. Why not? I speculate here, but MDS-Nordion is the "for profit" operation that was once part of AECL. (spun off and privatized in 1988 to Canada Development Investment Corporation (CDIC) and sold to Nordion in 1991). I think that Nordion and AECL did not want to have reduced profits and a loss of market share. Of course, this is just speculation driven by trying to find a sensible explanation of events. One cannot rule out the alternative thesis: rank incompetence at AECL.

It is clear that Nordion has been keen to reassure its clients that it has secure supply. As recently as March 2007, Nordion sent a letter to its customers to assure them it was prepared to "ramp up" the production of isotopes and that its istotope supply was completely reliable.

No one informed the Minister of Health of a looming crisis until December 5. (I am prepared to accept Tony Clement’s word on this.) For reasons of profit and market AECL gambled on holding Canadian patients hostage to avoid meeting the regulatory requirements. They won. The President of the CNSC lost.

3) Chalk River's NRU reactor makes Molybdenum 99. It makes about 40% of the world's supply. The other 60% comes from facilities in Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, France and Germany. The isotope used in diagnosis is technetium-99m (t-99m), which is derived from the Molybdenum 99. While the t99-m has a very very short half life, 6 hours, the Moly 99 lasts much longer (66 hours half life) and could have been stockpiled. A few micrograms of M 99 provides enough t 99m for 10,000 diagnostic tests. I can find no evidence that these medical isotopes are used in treatment. Lunn’s claim that lives would be lost without the forced re-opening of an out of compliance reactor is only credible through hypothetical extension that diagnosis is life-saving and no other diagnostic procedures were available. This claim will no doubt be pursued. CBC “As it Happens” was questioning it last night in an interview with B.C. Dr. Tom Perry.

4) AECL mismanagement: Everyone has known the NRU reactor will have to close eventually. It is way past its "best-before" date. AECL promised in 1996 to have two reactors up and running dedicated exclusively to making radio-isotopes. That was more than ten years ago. Maple 1 and 2 are pretty much finished at Chalk River. We know they were budgeted at $140 million. They are way over budget and they cannot be opened. AECL cannot figure out what is wrong, They were supposed to have a "negative power coefficient of reactivity (PCR)" -- meaning that the nuclear reaction in the core was supposed to slow down as power increased. This is a safety feature. Instead of slowing down, the reaction speeds up. The handling of this project is one of the items the Auditor General reported as a deficiency in her fall report to government, released this week. She also noted that the Chalk River facility itself needs $850-million in refurbishment over the next 10 years to extend its life.

5) How safe is safe enough? The NRU reactor, like all nuclear installations, has a very small risk of a very catastrophic accident. That is why they have back up systems. There is a current dispute between AECL, CNSC and Lunn -- and it is much larger than the NRU issue. The former President of CNSC is chairing an international nuclear safety committee. The CNSC communicated to AECL that if it plans to build any new reactors, it must meet international safety standards. AECL has protested that is unnecessary. Lunn takes AECL's side. (after all Harper and company want nuclear reactors to speed up exploitation of the tar sands....)

The Green Party does not accept that the regulator should have been over-ridden. This, plus removing Keen as President, has set a very dangerous precedent. Now the nuclear industry knows that if it is operating illegally and cutting corners, the Harper government will rush to their defense and shoot the messenger. The emergency legislation passed did NOT have any independent expert advice. I am not referring to the fact one expert was chair of a Conservative riding association. The lack of independence is that both witnesses to Parliament had long-standing ties to AECL. We believe the other political parties were too scared of angry cancer patients to be capable of thinking clearly.



The Opposition Parties should have contacted every manufacturer of Moly 99 around the world to ascertain whether they could meet demand, and over what time frame. ONLY if it was clear (which it is still not clear to us) there was no way to keep supplies of Moly 99 at acceptable levels, should the bill to re-open the NRU have gone ahead. We would have insisted on re-writing Lunn's emergency Bill to instruct CNSC to allow the reactor to open on a temporary license, with all safety issues over-seen by CNSC. The bill, as passed, puts AECL in charge of its own operation. The late night firing of the CNSC President only worsens the compromised role of an independent regulator. An impossible and dangerous precedent of nuclear fox watching over radioactive chicken coop.


We are demanding a full public inquiry into Canada’s nuclear industry. There has never been a public review of AECL. In 1979, one was promised by the Joe Clark Government under Energy Minister Ray Hnatyshyan, but the government fell before it could take place. With that brief exception, AECL has managed to capture and compromise every major political party in Canada -- from the NDP in Saskatchewan to the federal and provincial Liberals and Conservatives. The previously anti-nuclear Reform Party has now morphed into the most pro-nuclear political force in Canadian history. Billions of dollars in subsidies have gone to AECL with nearly zero accountability.

We are demanding Lunn's resignation. His interference with a quasi-judicial regulator is a firing offence. The Harper government does not understand the rule of law.