Friday, December 14, 2007

The mystery of Chalk River... heavy water runs deep

Updated: Lord Kithener's Own has the details on the first head to roll over the Chalk River nuclear fiasco. It wasn't Linda Keen.

No. It was AECL Chair Michael Burns, a Harper appointee.

This is only speculation, but I have the distinct impression this is not the result Harper was hoping for. Given his statements made while within the immunity of the House of Commons, Harper clearly wanted to change the make-up of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Since however, he could only do so by stepping outside the House, there is a good chance he got an earful he wasn't expecting. Perhaps something more respectful but which could easily be translated to something along the lines of, "Fat chance, Fastso!"

If he had demanded the resignation of Linda Keen, given her obvious tenacity, he would have been faced with more than one problem. First, he would have been firing her for diligently doing her job within her terms of reference. That would get a public airing that Harper would have difficulty maneuvering around.

Second, Linda Keen knows where the nuclear bodies are buried. If Harper fires her, the result will make Hiroshima look like a pebble being tossed in the water.


The smell emanating from the Chalk River nuclear reactor fiasco is getting more pungent by the the day. LKO provides a link to the Toronto Star and a story which verifies much of what was in this post. What he discovered at the end of the Star's article, however, starts to make it look very much like this was a set-up from the get-go. (emphasis mine)
This supply was cut off when AECL shut down Chalk River three weeks ago, after suddenly "discovering" during a four-day maintenance shutdown it had been running the reactor for almost two years without safety upgrades required under the operating licence issued by the nuclear safety commission.

At a hearing last week before the nuclear safety commission, AECL vice-president Brian McGee said the company had voluntarily shut down the reactor because safety was the highest priority, despite disruption to world isotope supply.

Really? So why wasn't that mentioned at the late night sitting of the House of Commons where witnesses were brought before the committee of the whole? Why was Linda Keen subject to badgering by Conservative MPs. Ms. Keen was grilled as to whether she had considered the effect of shutting down NRU Chalk River on the medical radioisotope supply.

Since when is it the province of a nuclear safety regulator to weigh the output product of a nuclear reactor when the only function of that office is to ensure the plant itself is running in compliance with its licence?

There's a little more worth examining.

There's a long history of friction between AECL and the nuclear safety regulators.

Two years ago, nuclear safety commission staff cited AECL for "overconfidence," "complacency" and "deficiencies in management oversight and safety culture" in operating Chalk River.

As well the safety commission's experts have regularly publicized the repeated design and engineering blunders by AECL that are responsible for two replacement isotope-producing reactors being eight years behind schedule and untold millions over budget.

The emergency shutdown systems on these two MAPLE reactors jammed during tests in 2000 yet AECL concealed the problem from the federal safety regulators for three months. Nuclear safety commission staff then infuriated AECL engineers by saying the design of that shutdown system was "inherently weak."

Such incidents are one reason that Fred Boyd, publisher of the newsletter of the Canadian Nuclear Society, says AECL's track record on the replacement isotope facility is "appalling."

Smell a rat yet?

Then there is information which came from Frank in comments. It appears this whole thing was driven, not by supply issues, but by the bottom line.

MDS Inc (MDS.TO: Quote) MDZ.N said on Thursday that the impact of the shutdown of a nuclear reactor that makes medical isotopes would be less than it previously thought after the Canadian government ordered the reactor be restarted immediately.

The company said it expects its Nordion division to be able to ship the isotopes to customers sooner than the early to mid-January date it provided last week.

The division, which supplies about 50 percent of the world's medical isotopes, has been hard hit by the shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear plant, off line since November.

MDS said last week that its medical isotopes and radiopharmaceuticals division would see a reduction in its first-quarter earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of about $8 million to $9 million. It altered that estimate during a conference call to analysts on Thursday, but gave no new figures.

But Brian Bapty, an analyst at Raymond James Ltd in Vancouver, British Columbia, said the EBITDA hit would be minimal compared with the lasting fallout of the incident should U.S. customers look elsewhere for their supplies down the road.

Bapty said there has been calls in recent years to produce the isotopes south of the border and this ramped up during the Chalk River shutdown.

"The minimal EBITDA hit in 2008 is irrelevant," he said. "Does this inspire a competitive landscape. Does this inspire a new competitor into the mix?"

MDS said the reactor would be up to full production within about a week and it would "turn supply around quickly."

That's a full-blown Panama wharf-rat. MDS-Nordion's big concern is that in a climate of competition with US medical consumers suggesting that medical radioisotopes be produced in the US, the shut-down of Chalk River would provide fuel to that argument. The MDS-Nordion lock on the radioisotope market was in jeopardy.

In the meantime, Canada is now gaining a lot of publicity - as a nuclear outlaw.

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