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?
Those questions (and others regarding AECL’s mismanagement in the lead-up to this crisis) are worthy of an inquiry. We’d all be able to sleep a lot better if they were answered.