I’m glad to have been able to facilitate a guest blog post by Elizabeth May about the Linda Keen/Gary Lunn nuclear fiasco over on Scott Tribe’s blog. (Scott runs the Progressive Bloggers aggregate, of which I’m a member.) Read the post and how the connection happened over on Scott’s site.
I spent the evening with Elizabeth May as she addressed an event at Upper Canada College. On the way over, we chatted about (among other things) the unbelievably disturbing situation unfolding with regards to the CNSC and our government. Namely, not only do we no longer have an independent nuclear safety watchdog in Canada, but the independence of all arms-length governmental organizations has been undermined. What’s even more unbelievable for me is that every single party in the House of Commons rolled over and let this happen. Just another example of why we need Green MPs now.
I asked Elizabeth if I could share the following email with you, which I received from her just an hour before she arrived at Union Station. (So from what I can tell, she wrote this off the top of her head on the train.) It represents what is possibly the most comprehensive and damning overview of what’s going largely unreported and why it’s so disastrous not only for our safety, but for our democracy.
We have taken very clear positions on this issue. First, you need to know we have done our homework. Here’s a crash course in the fiasco.
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. I think that Nordion and AECL did not want to have reduced profits and a loss of market share. No one informed the Minister of Health of a looming crisis until December 5. For reasons of profit and market they 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,
66 hours6 hours, the Moly 99 lasts much longer and could have been stockpiled. A few ounces of M 99 provides enough t 99m for thousands of treatments and diagnostic tests.
4) AECL mismanagement: Everyone has known the NRU reactor will have to close eventually. It is way past its “best-before” date. AECL promised 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.
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 some international nuclear safety committees. The CNSC communicated to AECL that if it plans to build any new reactors, they 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 defence 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.
Bottom line: WHAT WOULD WE HAVE DONE IF WE’D BEEN IN THE HOUSE? WHAT ARE WE DEMANDING NOW?
1) WHAT WOULD WE HAVE DONE IF WE’D BEEN IN THE HOUSE? 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. An impossible and dangerous precedent of nuclear fox watching over radioactive chicken coop.
2) WHAT ARE WE DEMANDING NOW?
We are demanding a full public inquiry. There has never been a public review of AECL. One was promised by the Joe Clark government, but the government fell before it could take place. 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.
We are exploring whether the conflict of interest between AECL being within Natural Resources would be reduced by placing nuke issues in Environment Canada… this is a position being taken by some prominent NGOs…
As we discussed the contents of this email, we listened to an interview with Dr. Tom Perry, a Professor at the University of British Columbia and a physician at the Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre, who struggled to understand how any lives could have been threatened as the Conservative government has claimed. During the whole time Chalk River was down, he and his colleagues failed to notice any health crisis.
In other words, there’s much more going on here than we’re aware of. We need an inquiry. Thank goodness we have in Elizabeth May the only party leader with the courage and credibility to press for the truth.
Yesterday was the fifty-fifth anniversary of the world’s first nuclear meltdown. The reactor that experienced the major “accident” was called NRX, and was located in a small town in Ontario named Chalk River. The organization in charge of the reactor at the time was Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.
On Tuesday, our elected Parliamentarians celebrated the occasion a day early. In an emergency late-night session, they decided that the 50-year-old nuclear reactor at Chalk River, which had been shut down after it was discovered that it was operating in violation of its conditions of license and in the absence of required safeguards, should be restarted. They did this against the advice of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, an “independent federal government agency that regulates the use of nuclear energy and material to protect health, safety, security and the environment.”
Linda Keen, the head of the CNSC, was called to testify at the late-night session, where she said that “the government didnâ€™t consult with the CNSC about the bill and, earlier Tuesday, removed the commission’s legal counsel so that it couldn’t dispute the legislation.” The safety watchdog’s director general said that the reactor was missing a “key upgrade” that is “key to nuclear safety” and is required to make sure that “the core doesn’t melt down.” The legislation to restart the reactor suspended the authority of the CNSC and turned the facility over to the authority of AECL, the same organization that presided over the previous Chalk River meltdown.
With that decision, Canada became “the only nation operating nuclear reactors—other than renegade Iran—where the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse.”
Every single elected party supported this decision. Every single one.
And, in a town notorious for taking years to pass even mundane legislation, this bill was rushed through both the lower and upper houses before most Canadians even realized what was going on. Senator Elane McCoy writes of the decision, “what it boils down to is this: we’re taking a gamble that no accidents will happen in the short term…let’s hope the gamble pays off.”
At least Senator McCoy understands that much. Our prime minister, who made a loathsome attempt to suggest that the nuclear safety experts at the CNSC weren’t competent simply because some of them had been appointed by a previous government of a different colour, has somehow deemed himself capable of assuring this nation that “there will be no nuclear accident.” I wonder if any of his aids pulled him aside afterwards to tell him what the word “accident” means.
Now, regardless of what you think of this decision, at least three burning questions remain. One, next time there’s a question of safety at a nuclear power plant, will the CNSC have the authority to speak out, or have they been completely undermined? Two, given the dismal reliability record of most nuclear reactors, as well as the age of the Chalk River reactor, how is it possible that the government didn’t have a plan for this inevitable eventuality? And three, how much of this whole saga actually has to do with providing medical facilities with radioactive isotopes (it remains unclear how much of the demand could have been met by ramping up other suppliers, and how much effort was put into investigating those possibilities), and how much of it has to do with the government’s desire to protect the sale price of AECL in preparation for its privatization?