Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Chalk River nuclear isotope production plant is back in production now, and the sound and fury of the Conservatives and Liberals denouncing each other over whose political appointees are to blame is gradually dieing down. The watch dog on all things Harper, the Harper Index, has an interesting recent article opining that the "crisis" was largely manufactured by the Harper government in response to pressure from MDS Nordion, the contracted distributor of the isotopes produced at Chalk River (see ). Seems that the uncertainty produced by the shutdown reduced MDS' profits for the 4th quarter by two thirds. The article says that the isotope shortages were isolated and manageable, something that may or may not be true, but it also states that AECL and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission were well on their way to settling their dispute and that Harper's grandstanding by presenting a start-up order for parliamentary consent was unnecessary. That part is very likely.
The Harper Index article goes on to expose one of the hidden underbellies of the whole matter. While AECL is in the dirty and unprofitable business of actually producing the materials MDS handles the clean and profitable gravy train of sales and distribution, with a cheap product heavily subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer. Once more this is an example of how government owned business is often set up for the convenience of private firms, rather than for the benefit of the general population. In the area of regulation this service-providing aspect of the supposed watchdog function of government is often even more glaring.
The Harper Index article goes on to speculate that Harper's move was a preliminary to plans to privatize AECL. Here Molly has to call a time-out and refer to sources beyond the article in question. An article from the CBC News gives a backgrounder on Glenna Carr, Harper's new appointee as Chairwoman of AECL. After a career as an Ontario bureaucrat for governments of all political stripes she left the public employ to set up a consulting firm specializing the issues of corporate governance and private-public partnerships. Nobody more suitable to oversee the sell off of AECL could be chosen, and if her function is to be one of dismantling then the actions of the Harper government towards their last political appointee, Michael Burns, as Chair of AECL. Harper appears eager to make Burns a scapegoat, and Burns, in turn, has accused Harper of "political opportunism" for delaying news of his resignation until the Chalk River "crisis" blew up in public. If Carr's position will be more of a term one then she might ignore the obvious treachery of her employer towards his underlings.
Not that privatizing AECL would be such a bad idea. Most lefties reaction with horror to the idea that the government should get out of anything, and often they are right. AECL will be offered on a silver platter to whomever wishes to take it over. Profits will be made. Friendships that will result in lucrative positions at the least (or maybe huge sums of undeclared cash handed over in restaurants ????) will be forged. Whoever buys AECL will benefit from decades of public subsidy, but that may be irrelevant. AECL is the classic money sucker. An editorial in last Saturday's Globe and Mail ('AECL served a purpose, now it's time to sell it' by Derek Decloet) makes the case for privatization very well. Yes, many people in both government and business will benefit undeservedly from the sale of AECL, but the corporation has been a boondoggle from day one. Since the 1950s the Canadian taxpayer has funnelled $21 billion into the AECL maw, adding $71 billion to the National Debt. This money-pit will never close up. It will continue to provide cheap product for the likes of MDS Nordion, as well as innumerable contractors for its other enterprises. Whether it serves an essential public service role is doubtful in the extreme. It may be time for the Canadian taxpayers to cut their losses and run.
Many privatization schemes of the government result in a lower level of public service, but it's doubtful that the privatization of AECL would do this. As an anarchist Molly often opposes such schemes because of this, while saying that a different form of "privatization", the turning over of such enterprises as say Canada Post to producers; cooperatives run by the workers in them would be the optimal solution. From government enterprise to cooperative enterprise- not to the corporations. The structure of Canada's nuclear industry, however, makes this sort of solution almost impossible. It was set up as a subsidy to business, and would remain so under whatever self-management scheme might be proposed. In other words it would forever be financially dependent upon the government and therefore never truly independent. All this is not even entering into the question of whether nuclear energy is a good idea in the first place. Sell the bugger off. At least then it would become somebody else's problem.

No comments: