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Political behaviour goes nuclear

The Toronto Star: Carol Goar - January 16, 2008

If they held auditions on Parliament Hill for a hot-tempered bully and his thuggish sidekick, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn would be shoo-ins.

Their month-long attack on Linda Keen, the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, has been ugly, unwarranted and unfair.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion would be perfect for the role of hypocritical scold. In his rush to demand Lunn's resignation, he overlooked the fact that his own party had ignored warnings of serious deficiencies at the Chalk River nuclear reactor site for years.

Yet this blundering trio may have done the nation an inadvertent service.

At long last, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the crown corporation at the centre of the medical isotope scandal, is getting public scrutiny. Finally, the red lights that have been flashing since at least 2000 are attracting some attention.

Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives should have been surprised last month when the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the agency mandated to protect Canadians from radioactive leaks and spills, ordered the Chalk River reactor to remain closed until it had completed mandatory safety upgrades. They were supposed to have been done two years ago.

What's more, neither party can feign innocence about the chronic money and management problems that have plagued AECL. The auditor general has flagged health and safety concerns year after year. The nuclear safety commission has sounded the alarm repeatedly.

Harper admitted as much last week. "These are very serious problems that have developed over a very long period of time," he said. "The minister and government have been aware for some time of the long-term financial and managerial challenges."

Dion made no such acknowledgement. But if he didn't know how dysfunctional AECL was, he should have. He sat at the federal cabinet table for 10 years.

It is regrettable that Keen, who was simply doing her job as Canada's nuclear watchdog, has been attacked, threatened and demonized by Harper and his sidekick. The two men are demeaning the offices they hold.

It is equally unfortunate that the Liberals and Conservatives have spent the last month finger-pointing, rather than focusing on the core issue of what needs to be done about the government-owned nuclear technology company. Canadians need answers.

Despite the diversionary tactics, a few things are becoming clear:

If Canada intends to stay in the business of building and operating nuclear reactors, it has to get serious and rigorous about fulfilling its safety obligations, replacing obsolete technology and hiring competent managers. AECL has been cutting corners and taking risks for too long.

The 56-year-old crown corporation can no longer be allowed to operate out of public view. Neither government ministers nor regulators have been able to hold its managers accountable for missed deadlines, licence violations and safety lapses.

The Ontario government, which plans to spend $27 billion on nuclear technology in the next 20 years, should take a long, hard look at AECL's delivery and service record. Should it decide to go with CANDU reactors, Ontario needs firm guarantees that they will be up and running on time, within budget, with all of the required safeguards.

If the government follows through on its threat to fire Keen, it will substantially weaken one of the best defences the nation has against a tragedy like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.

It is heartening that Keen, a scientist with 30 years of experience in the public service and private sector, refuses to play the role of victim in this distasteful drama.

And it is reassuring that Hugh MacDiarmid, the business executive appointed last month to run AECL, is promising prompt action to deal with the problems at Chalk River.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission seldom ventures into the spotlight. Six weeks ago, most Canadians probably didn't even know it existed.

They know now. On balance, that is a good thing.

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