Dion meltdown on nuclear report ignores past

Brantford Expositor: Greg Weston - January 12, 2008

Liberal leader Stephane Dion went thermonuclear for the cameras this week, accusing the Conservative government of hiding a damning auditor general's report on the federally owned atomic energy company.

Seems the report made public this week has been around since last September.

Turns out that's about five years less than an even more alarming report on the same nuclear agency by the same federal watchdog, buried by the Liberals since 2002.

In fact, the Liberals never did release Auditor General Sheila Fraser's earlier bombshell. You are reading from it here first.

(Memo to Dion: There's nothing much that irks public servants more than politicians blowing self-righteous hypocrisy on serious issues such as nuclear safety.)

The Liberal leader is now demanding Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn be nuked from his job for not fixing what ails the government's nuclear power company, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL).

But confidential government documents suggest Lunn's predecessor in the 2002 Liberal government was so disinterested that he kissed off repeated invitations from Fraser to discuss her truly dire discoveries.

In her latest report, Fraser warns of "significant deficiencies" at AECL, including at the antiquated Chalk River facility where a recent reactor shutdown cut off half the world's supply of radioactive isotopes used in medical scanners.

Not a new problem

That said, aside from some bullying of the nuclear regulator, it is hardly a problem of the Conservatives' making as Dion would have Canadians believe.

Far from it. During their 13 years in office, the Liberals did a lot more to cause the mess at Atomic Energy, and a lot less to clean it up before they were turfed out of office in 2006.

As a result, in her 2002 review, the auditor general reported "serious and long-standing risks associated with AECL's older facilities," especially at Chalk River.

Fraser's report cites the confidential findings of an expert panel hired in 2001 to assess the medical isotope facility currently in the news.

Among them:

Health and safety hazards were "likely to become significant in time."

A "reduction of environmental risk is necessary to reduce the significant probability of increased environmental contamination."

"Regulatory, safety review committee or executive concern has been expressed about AECL inactivity, and there is a risk of a public outcry."

If all that didn't get the Liberal government's attention, Fraser added a chilling observation.

"Some members of the (expert) panel concluded that the risks to ... health, safety and the environment were substantially more severe than these descriptions indicate."

Worse, the auditor general noted, many of the same problems had been identified when the Liberals came to power almost a decade earlier.

On Nov. 15, 2002, Fraser sent a copy of her report to then Liberal resources minister Herb Dhaliwal, along with a covering letter imploring him to meet to discuss her alarming findings, particularly "unresolved issues with the government" and their potential impact on "the management of environmental risks at AECL sites."

Meeting refused

Two months later, Dhaliwal replied, in part: "As your report was quite clear and acceptable to me, I felt no need for us to meet at this time. I was particularly pleased that you saw evidence of strong leadership ... and found that good systems and practices existed in several key areas."

Fraser issued another equally critical companion report on AECL, and again invited Dhaliwal to meet.

Again he shrugged her off: "As the report was positive in general and very clear, I felt no need to accept your generous offer to meet."

This week, Dion accused the current minister, Lunn, of being "secretive, insensitive and incompetent" in managing the Chalk River issue.

On that, the Liberals speak from experience.

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