Thursday, December 13, 2007

The mystery of Chalk River... and a question of timing

Via Big City Lib is this bit of crap out of Harper.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed yesterday that someone will be held to account for the shutdown of the reactor that produces half of the world's medical isotopes as his government searched for culprits to blame in its battle with the country's nuclear regulator.

"I can certainly assure the House that when this is all behind us, the government will carefully examine the role of all actors in this incident and make sure that accountability is appropriately restored," Mr. Harper said in the House of Commons.

Yes, well, Harper can get away with that as long as he's being sheltered by the House of Commons. Step outside the House and make that kind of statement and he'd have his fat ass sued right into the Bow River.

The truth, something which we are unlikely to hear from Harper, may be considerably different than what we've gotten to date. First is a comment by Jim Bobby here.

In 1998, they had a labour dispute at Chalk River which caused the reactor to be shut down. MDS Inc. is the private sector supplier of medical isotopes that distributes AECL's product. During the strike, MDS was able to honour its contracts using alternative, more expensive, sources. They saw the 1998 shutdown coming and they made alternate arrangements. They saw this shutdown coming, too. Why did they not make alternate arrangements this time? Do you suppose a manufactured crisis might be used to discredit a pesky regulatory agency? Could someone want the price of the up-for-sale AECL to go down? Could big for-profit business like the nuclear industry exercise undue influence on a Conservative government? Lives were at stake. That is simply because AECL falsified a report saying it had performed required upgrades when, in fact, it had not done so. To complicate matters and ensure that a crisis developed, AECL failed to inform the affected medical users that they would be cut off. MDS Nordion failed to procure isotopes from an alternative supplier, even though procedures for doing so were laid out after the 1998 labour dispute.
And sure enough, some easy searches verify that information.

Then we get Health Minister Tony Clement making statements that his department had not been informed by AECL that the reactor had been shut down. He found out 2 1/2 weeks after the fact, and says he'll get some answers.

I guess he should. He won't have to go far either. AECL is a Crown corporation reporting to the Minister of Natural Resources. One of the customers of Chalk River is the federal department of health. There are at least two ministers on this file and they don't seem to have established proper reporting procedures within their departments. One could almost say that the operation of the Chalk River reactor is something remote from the workings of government, except for one little thing.

The Chalk River reactor and AECL have been getting a long, hard look from the Harper regime. Natural Resources minister, Gary Lunn has been in negotiations with General Electric in an effort to sell off a large chunk of AECL. The sudden and unexpected shut-down of Chalk River, not to mention the fact that two MAPLE reactors, (owned by medical isotope supplier MDS Nordion), are not yet commissioned, would give GE a moment of pause when considering a purchase.

Until AECL can get the MAPLE reactors running safely (they appear to have a problem with that), the only medical radioisotope supplier is the NRU facility at Chalk River. Once (if?) the MAPLE reactors are commissioned, AECL has every intention of shutting down the NRU Chalk River reactor permanently. When the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission demanded a safety upgrade it probably ran afoul of AECL's plans - and the plans of the Harper government to sell off AECL. The CNSC was calling for a fairly expensive upgrade to a reactor AECL would rather not be operating. The same regulator will not issue licenses for the MAPLE reactors until safety concerns with them are rectified.

How do you reassure a prospective buyer that the regulator will not be a problem? Push the regulator out of the way.

There is every possibility this is a manufactured crisis. If it isn't the Harperites don't have their eye on the ball and have tried to cover their own incompetence at not knowing what's going on in their own departments.

There's more. A lot more. Politics'n'Poetry has done a fabulous job of researching the Chalk River NRU facility and what she found out suggests that this is indeed a manufactured crisis by both the industry and the Harperites. It's long but worth every word.

So, I will leave you here and send you to Politics'n'Poetry.

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