Ottawa fires nuclear safety commission head

CBC News: Canadian Press - January 16, 2008

The federal government has fired the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, days after she publicly accused Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn of interfering with the independence of the arm's-length watchdog.

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn blamed the CNSC head Linda Keen for the reactor shutdown that caused the shortage of medical isotopes.

Lunn's office announced Linda Keen's immediate firing as commission president in a statement issued early Wednesday. While she will remain a member of the commission, assistant deputy industry minister Michael Binder has been named as interim president.

"The president was aware of the importance of maintaining Canada's and the world's supply of medical isotopes," said the statement from Lunn's office.

"However, given the growing crisis, she did not demonstrate the leadership expected of the president under the existing legislative provisions of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act to put the commission in a position to address the situation in a timely fashion."

Lunn and Keen have been at odds since the 50-year-old Chalk River nuclear reactor was shut down in November, prompting a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes. Parliament passed a measure requiring the facility to reopen in December.

In a Dec. 27 letter to Keen leaked to the Ottawa Citizen, Lunn questioned her judgment for recommending the reactor be shut down and informed her he was considering having her removed from the post.

The former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Linda Keen, says she will appear at a parliamentary committee about the reactor closure on Wednesday.

Keen responded with an eight-page letter accusing Lunn of improper interference and threatening to fight in court any attempt to remove her from her job. She also said she had asked the privacy commissioner and the RCMP to investigate how Lunn's letter was leaked to the media.

The two are expected to appear later Wednesday before a parliamentary natural resources committee examining the consequences of the reactor's closure. Committee members issued a summons on Tuesday.

Keen has said she'll appear despite her dismissal.

"What we're witnessing is an unprecedented and unusual tension between the minister and the regulator," said committee member and Liberal MP Omar Alghabra.

The reactor facility in Chalk River, Ont., is pictured in this photograph from 1985. Medical isotopes produced there are key to diagnosing and treating various cancers.

The Chalk River reactor generates two-thirds of the radioisotopes used around the world in medical procedures and tests. It was shut down on Nov. 18 because of safety concerns.

A ministerial directive on Dec. 10 ordered the CNSC to reopen the site. The agency refused, insisting a backup safety system be installed to prevent the risk of a meltdown during an earthquake or other disaster.

On Dec. 11, an emergency measure passed through the House of Commons overturning the watchdog's decision, and the reactor was restarted for a 120-day run on Dec. 16.

The Conservative government has blamed the commission's intransigence for creating the crisis. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper pointed a finger directly at Keen, a career bureaucrat whom he referred to as a Liberal appointee.

"the course of action contemplated was extremely ill-advised, an appalling use of authority and judgement," Harper told CBC News in December.

Keen became head of the commission in 2001 and had been serving her second five-year term.

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