Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 28, 2008
Nuclear fallout surrounds unjust firing
It's been said that a nuclear reactor carries with it a very small risk of an extremely large catastrophe. That is one reason why the nuclear industry needs to be tightly regulated by a body free from outside interference and the pressures of politics. It's also one reason Albertans need to be especially wary of any proposal to build a nuclear power plant in our province.
The legislation governing the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is vague on the crucial point of the commission's independence, a vagueness that allowed Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn to fire CNSC president Linda Keen for basically doing her job well.
Part of CNSC's task is to oversee Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which has developed Canada's CANDU nuclear reactor. Two examinations of AECL by the federal auditor-general released Jan. 16 show a decade of troubled relations between AECL and the federal government.
A 1998 report predicted troubles, including safety issues, with the aging Chalk, River, Ont., nuclear reactor - a prediction that proved all too true this past fall when the CNSC ordered the reactor closed for non-compliance with safety regulations. However, the closure also represented a threat to public health in that Chalk River is the world's largest producer of medical isotopes.
Parliament dutifully ordered the reactor back into service to ensure a continued supply of isotopes. The politicians essentially decided that the risk of nuclear catastrophe was small compared with the threat to public health from the lack of isotopes.
While this was a prudential judgment that Parliament had the right to make, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was out of line in attacking Keen's credibility by calling her a Liberal appointee who was placing the lives of 'tens of thousands" of people at risk by shutting down the reactor. Meanwhile, Lunn, prior to Parliament acting, had ordered Keen to re-open the reactor. Later, he sent her a letter attacking her for a supposed lack of judgment in shutting down the reactor and threatening to fire her.
However, there was never any reason to believe Keen lacked good judgment or acted improperly. The CNSC's mandate is to maintain the safety of nuclear reactors, not to ensure a continued supply of medical isotopes.
While the legislation governing her position is vague, the government should have had the good sense to respect the independence from political interference that the position should have. The CNSC should not have to take orders from the minister.
Lunn's subsequent firing of Keen on Jan. 15 - the day before she was to appear before the House of Commons natural resources committee - only further eroded the role of the president of the CNSC. Keen's successor will certainly know who is calling the tune.
Nuclear energy already has several strikes against it - the lack of a long-term solution for the hazardous waste it produces, the possibility of a calamity that could kill hundreds of thousands of people and the ever-present possibility of it contributing to nuclear weapons proliferation. That there is no regulator with iron-clad freedom from political interference to oversee Canada's nuclear industry is beyond the pale.
The government should amend its legislation to guarantee that oversight of nuclear power in Canada is far removed from the pressures of politics.
Meanwhile, in Alberta, where we face a proposal for a nuclear power plant to stoke the Athabasca tarsands industry, the Keen affair should be seen as one more reason to just say "no."
- Glen Argan
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