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Concerns raised on future of industry; Decisions affecting Ontario's electricity supply to be delayed

The Toronto Star: Peter Calamai - January 17, 2008

The country's atomic safety watchdog has suffered the political equivalent of nuclear fission, raising doubts among experts about its ability to effectively regulate reactors, uranium mines, fuel manufacturers and other potentially dangerous installations.

The Harper government's late-night firing of Linda Keen as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has also created the type of fallout that the nuclear industry dreads most - regulatory uncertainty.

"There is greater uncertainty from everyone's perspective - the nuclear power industry, uranium companies and potentially public confidence," said nuclear specialist Doug Chambers with SENES Consultants Ltd.

In an interview yesterday, Chambers said the firing would raise questions among nuclear regulatory agencies worldwide over possible politicization of the nuclear safety commission.

Some observers also expressed fear the upheaval could get worse with other veteran commissioners resigning in the wake of the government's treatment of Keen.

"I'm not sure that all the shoes have dropped yet," said Duncan Hawthorne, president and CEO of privately owned Bruce Power.

Hawthorne said the industry hoes stability will return quickly to the commission because of the tight timetable for a major expansion of nuclear power in Ontario with a 2011 target to start construction of new supersize reactors at Bruce and Darlington.

"But there are deeper issues here than whether Linda Keen was doing the job the way some people wanted her to do it," he said.

One such issue was the conflict inherent in the two roles Keen performed, Hawthorne said.

As president, Keen was the chief executive officer responsible for overseeing the 400-member commission staff. But she also served as chair of the six-member tribunal board that makes the formal licensing decisions. In most organizations those two roles are split.

The commission is now headed by a novice temporary president, federal public servant Michael Binder, with the prospect of an inexperienced replacement following later this year after a talent search promised by the Harper government.

The nuclear industry is awaiting commission feedback on proposed new safety, design and location standards for licensing new reactors. The industry last week submitted detailed comments on the standards.

"One big concern would be that no one in the (commission) is empowered with decision making during the months ahead. Is there going to be an impasse?" Hawthorne asked.

Keen's firing was the culmination of a month-long, three-way tussle by the commission, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and the Harper government over the shut-down for licence violations of the reactor at Chalk River, which provides more than half the world's supply of medical isotopes.

The controversy has caught the attention of the International Nuclear Regulators Association, which includes most national atomic watchdogs.

The association has put the affair on the agenda for its next meeting in April.

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