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Gary Lunn's nuclear meltdown

The Ottawa Citizen: January 17, 2008

You might think, if you're a government minister, that firing a senior official in the middle of the night, hours before she's to testify to a parliamentary committee, would look bad. But if you're Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, that's something you're used to.

Mr. Lunn is the minister answerable to the fiasco at Chalk River, where an Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. nuclear reactor produces radioactive substances used in vital medical procedures. That's the reactor the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission ordered shut last fall, for violating its operating licence. Mr. Lunn is responsible for both AECL (a Crown corporation) and the safety commission, whose president he dismissed late Tuesday night.

Because he had just fired her, Linda Keen didn't appear before the House of Commons natural resources committee yesterday to explain herself, as she was scheduled to. Instead, only Mr. Lunn appeared.

He went with two messages: the Chalk River reactor was as safe as it had ever been, and sick people needed the isotopes it produced. Both points are probably true, but neither is relevant.

The fight over the Chalk River reactor hinged on AECL's hooking up a particular backup cooling pump to an emergency power system, as the nuclear safety commission ordered in 2006. By last fall, 17 months after the order, AECL hadn't gotten around to the job, even though it had told the safety commission it had.

This was a new safety system, one the reactor hadn't had in the 50 years it had been running. In that sense, the reactor was no less safe than ever. Yet the commission's rules said the pump was supposed to have this backup power -- and it didn't.

Mr. Lunn's case against Ms. Keen amounts to this: Never mind the rules, she should have known the reactor's medical uses made it too important to shut down. This line of reasoning is familiar to students of the Chrétien era's sponsorship scandal, when politicians invoked national unity to bend the rules for awarding contracts with Public Works.

If Ms. Keen had held off on enforcing a condition that AECL had ignored for nearly a year and a half and misled its regulator about, she'd have shown AECL that because sick people depend on the NRU reactor, it's untouchable.

We've seen such a problem with nuclear reactors generating electricity in Ontario. William Farlinger, then the chairman of Ontario Hydro, publicly declared in 1997 that his own utility's reactors were run by "some sort of a special nuclear cult" that was so far out of managers' control that eventually the reactors became unsafe. After all, what was Hydro going to do -- shut the reactors down?

Ultimately, Mr. Farlinger ordered seven of 19 Ontario reactors shut down.

Every nuclear reactor is important. But in the end, the CNSC must have the authority to shut them down if their operators defy the regulator's lawful demands. Ms. Keen exercised this authority, and it cost her her job.

Mr. Lunn is evidently desperate to avoid responsibility for a mess that he should have known enough to avert. Was he totally ignorant of the ongoing dispute between the AECL and the CNSC? His last-minute firing of Ms. Keen is a sign of panic -- and a bad sign for a government that promised a new age of accountability on Parliament Hill.

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