Nuclear Power, Lunn, and Keen

January 16th, 2008 by Potato

Canada has been at the forefront of nuclear research right from the very beginning. We also had some of the world’s first nuclear accidents at Chalk River in 1952 and 1958, and those early mis-steps lead to an incredible culture of safety in our nuclear power industry. No matter the cost over-runs, the delays in a project, or the engineering required, safety was always the highest priority, and our nuclear watchdog the CNSC was there to make sure that safety stayed priority number one. The CANDU, our series of Canadian-designed nuclear reactors were designed from the ground up to be as safe as possible: using natural uranium means the core can’t naturally go critical (and has non-proliferation bonuses), and heavy water as a moderator can be easily drained/evapourated in an emergency to shut the core down, etc. This reactor has also been sold with some success around the world (granted, we engaged in some fancy lending practices to sell it, and the design may owe as much to a concern about safety as it does to our position as a major producer of heavy water).

I’ve been a proponent of nuclear power for a while: sure, waste is an issue (though again, less so with the CANDU design) for the long term, but for the medium-term (10-50 years) nuclear power is really going to be our only cheap, GHG-free source of electricity, and I think we’re going to have to rely on it until other renewables can get off the ground. (I also think it’s better to plan to build one over the span of ten years and start now than to realize 8 years from now that oh shit, we need another nuclear power plant, like, now!).

Now, the Harper neocons have forced me to possibly reconsider that. First, they interfered with and politicized the issue of the NRU shutdown, and ordered it back up with a bill in parliament (yes, the other parties supported it, but they were also in a bit of a hard place with that). That move I thought was possibly the right thing for the moment: there was a big backlog of nuclear medicine tests because of the lack of isotopes. In the greater scheme of things, that might have been a time to forgo absolute nuclear safety, let the reactor run as it had been for a while, stockpile some more moly-99, and then shut it down again for the upgrades in another month or so. Beyond the moment though, it was a very dangerous move for the government to take. Once that step is taken of a government stepping in and overruling the nuclear watchdog, how hard is it to do again, for increasingly trivial reasons? Sure, this time the greater good may have been served by letting a downright ancient reactor run in a somewhat risky state (and note that this is one of the very few reactors in Canada with a design that will allow it to meltdown in a failure mode) to help thousands of patients. But what about next time? Will they overrule the CNSC again just to cut corners and get a steam-generating nuclear station set up for oil sands extraction? Maybe a bill to let another nuclear project run without safeties just because it’s too gosh-darn expensive to install them? (After all, they’ve got some taxes to cut!)

Out of the blue today, they fired Linda Keen, the president of the CNSC. This has gone way too far now. She was just doing her job as far as I can tell. No matter what Lunn might have to say about it, her job is to make sure that nuclear energy and isotopes in Canada are handled safely, and to regulate that. That’s it. Her job is not to balance safety with health concerns and isotope availability. If the ancient NRU somehow became the only source for Moly-99 on the continent, and hospitals all over are facing shortages, well, that’s above her pay grade, and the short-sightedness of people who should plan that sort of thing is not her fault. The reactor is not safe, so it doesn’t come back up. Even under pressure from the government, she kept her chin up. The government can (and did) do an end run around her in the case of a health crisis/isotope shortage, and that’s fine. It was a special set of circumstances beyond the scope of her agency. But there’s no reason I can see for firing her. In fact, reading her letter it looks like the CNSC was trying to work with AECL to get a modified license to bring the reactor up without the backup equipment, but the ball was dropped by AECL (whose chief resigned already).

There are a few choice quotes from the Globe & Mail’s article about Lunn defending his decision:

Bloc Québécois MP Claude DeBellefeuille accused the Minister of undermining public confidence in the CNSC.

“You have shaken the confidence that people should have in this independent watchdog for nuclear safety. You have sown doubt about this body,” she said.

The article doesn’t have an answer to that one from Lunn, and that is an exceptionally valid point. The parliamentary override, as controversial and short-sighted as it was, could have been done with a lot less name-calling and finger-pointing. Most importantly, it could have been done with a lot less politicizing, which might have given people some reassurance that this trouncing of the nuclear watchdog, just doing its job, was a one-off affair, and not a recurring madness in our government. Either way, this episode is going to strengthen the arguments from those opposed to nuclear power.

Asked by the NDP’s Catherine Bell if he would resign if censured by parliamentarians, Mr. Lunn replied, “No, I serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister and I have his confidence.”

I predict that in a few days, Lunn is going to find out just how fleeting the “confidence” of the PM is. He’ll tear up a key campaign plank and break a promise, like taxing income trusts, and sow havoc in the markets about random, unjustified government intervention in the marketplace, on a complete whim. When he’s got as much political pressure as there is now to axe Lunn, and when Lunn has been as embarrassing to the PM as he has been, well… loyalty and confidence count for very little in the neocon party of Canada.

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