For a minute, there, I thought we had gone back in time. Here I was, just working away at home, with the radio on in the background, and I hear news of a worrisome medical isotope shortage, what with the Chalk River nuclear plant going offline for two months.
But, no, there were no eddies in the space-time continuum. It wasn’t a case of deja-vu. Chalk River, a fifty-year-old nuclear reactor that’s situated over a fault line, has been taken offline for safety upgrades, raising concerns about a shortage of medical isotopes, as this is one of the very few reactors in the world where this work is done.
Why, it seems like only eighteen months ago that we were having this same debate, when the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission took the Chalk River facility offline, raising fears of the medical isotope shortage. And when questioned by the government, the head of the CNSC, Linda Keen, basically responded that she was doing her job as part of an arms-length agency whose mandate it was to ensure the safety of the Chalk River facility and the surrounding countryside.
Rather than simply take on the political task of ruling that the shortage in medical isotopes was more important to address than some overdue safety retrofits, the Conservatives, particularly Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn attacked Keen and her agency. Conservative party supporters impugned Keen’s credentials and her impartiality, suggesting that she was a Liberal Party hack. It was a blatantly partisan attack on what was supposed to be a non-partisan agency. Keen was eventually forced to resign, and is pursuing the issue of her dismissal in the courts.
Now, however, we see that Chalk River had to be shut down on May 14 after a power outage in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. The very next day, a leak in the heavy water reservoir was detected, and the facility must remain offline while the maintenance work is completed. Our supply of medical isotopes might not last beyond the end of this month.
One wonders if this work would have been required if Atomic Energy of Canada Limited had been able to do the retrofits ordered by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission eighteen months ago, if the government hadn’t forced the order to be rescinded in the most arrogant and partisan manner possible. And, it’s worth pointing out: the amount of work done over the past eighteen months to bring Chalk River up to current safety standards appears to be negligible. Likewise, there does not seem to have been much effort on the part of this government to set up an alternative facility to generate medical isotopes, leaving all the eggs in one basket.
It would seem that not only has Linda Keen been vindicated, but the amount of attention the government gave this matter once the controversy died down has been minimal. This certainly raises questions about the competence of this government, both in terms of maintaining our supply of medical isotopes, and in maintaining the safe operation of our aging nuclear reactors.
So, if this is the case, will Gary Lunn, or anybody within the Conservative caucus apologize to Linda Keen? Will those supporters who questioned Ms. Keen’s competence or her impartiality step forward to acknowledge their mistake?
Somehow, I suspect I may have to wait a while.