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Atomic firm's chairman quits amid isotope furor; Chalk River controversy prompts PM to shake up AECL leadership

The Globe And Mail: Alan Freeman And Karen Howlett - December 15, 2007

OTTAWA and TORONTO -- The chairman of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., owner of the

embattled Chalk River nuclear reactor, resigned suddenly yesterday.

Appointed in 2006 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Michael C. Burns had been the part-time chairman for just over a year.

Mr. Burns will be replaced by Glenna Carr, a onetime top civil servant in the Ontario government who was once chairwoman of the Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator.

Mr. Harper also announced that the beleaguered AECL will get a new chief executive, former rail executive Hugh MacDiarmid, as it emerged that the company had been leaderless for the past six weeks.

Robert Van Adel, the company's president and CEO, retired on Nov. 1 and apparently was never replaced. Within a few weeks, AECL was plunged into a crisis over the shutdown of the Chalk River facility, prompting a shortage of isotopes used in cancer diagnostics and other medical tests.

The reactor was shut down on Nov. 18 for maintenance and was scheduled to resume operation five days later, but it was forced to remain closed after the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission determined that the reactor had been operating without required emergency power backup for its cooling pumps.

An industry executive said the government had to move quickly because of the disconnect between AECL and the nuclear regulator. "I think it blindsided the government," he said.

Parliament this week ordered resumption of the reactor's operation, overruling the regulator, deciding that it was more important to get the production of isotopes back under way. Mr. Harper spent much of the week blaming the "Liberal-appointed" regulator, and its head Linda Keen in particular, for the problem. But a Tory appointee was the first to take the fall.

Mr. Burns, who was not available for comment, was named AECL chair in October of last year by Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn. Mr. Burns, who heads a B.C. wind-power company, used to handle the finances of the Canadian Alliance and has been a long-time Tory fundraiser.

Nobody in government was available to explain the latest moves. Mr. Harper's office announced the appointments early in the evening but his media representatives said that Mr. Lunn's office would handle questions. A spokesman for Mr. Lunn said the Prime Minister's Office was in charge.

Liberal natural resources critic Omar Alghabra said the management shakeup was "a clear demonstration that there has been a failure at AECL."

He described the fact that the corporation has been without a president and CEO in the midst of the crisis as "very concerning."

Mr. Van Adel did not return a phone call, and AECL's spokesman declined comment.

"If he's stepping down, he's probably acting as a fall guy for the Conservatives," Greenpeace activist Shawn-Patrick Stensil said last night of Mr. Burns's departure. "This may be a cosmetic solution to make the Tories look like they're acting."

Mr. Stensil said the executive changes will likely do little to address systemic issues facing the Crown corporation. But he said the appointment of Ms. Carr is significant because she is well-connected to the Liberal government in Ontario. The federal government is urging Premier Dalton McGuinty to award a multibillion-dollar contract to build the province's first new reactors in more than two decades to AECL.

Mr. McGuinty has announced that the province will build at least two new reactors to help meet its electricity needs, but he has not yet decided which company will get the nod. Mr. Lunn told The Globe and Mail a year ago that it is "imperative" that AECL get the contract.

Ms. Carr's term at the IESO, Ontario's electricity manager, ended in May. She is intimately familiar with the province's need for new energy supplies.

"Next year is all about the government trying to sell reactors to Ontario," Mr. Stensil said. "It almost seems like a strategic appointment for bolstering AECL's chances."

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