Saturday, January 19, 2008

The continuing soap-opera of Harper and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) turned a new page recently when the Conservative government fired Linda Keen, former president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The Harper government continues to be in character by scape-goating this person, plotting behind the scenes and generally being about as trustworthy as the old Conservative political boss Brian Mulroney. Here's an article on the subject from the Harper Index, dedicated to keep the microscope on the secretive actions of the feds:
"Ottawa, January 17, 2008: Canada's natural resources minister Gary Lunn and Prime Minister Stephan Harper may have thought they were doing the nuclear industry a favour by firing Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) President Linda Keen, but the move looks likely to backfire in many ways. The firing amounts to blaming the regulator, the CNSC, for a mistake made by the Crown-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL)., the corporation that is being regulated. When it became known that AECL had failed to carry out a required safety upgrade to a 50-year-old reactor, the Commission acted properly by insisting that AECL come into compliance with its licence before the reactor was restarted.
The issue raises serious concerns. The apparent crisis may have been politically manipulated to satisfy the needs of private corporate health care giant MDS Nordion and to boost the asset value of AECL. It is also possible that the government was trying to cover up for having very quietly joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in November. They may have wanted to divert attention from a commitment that could result in Canada becoming a global nuclear waste disposal site.
John Iverson, in the conservative National Post, reports today that Keen was targeted for hurting the nuclear industry at a time it sees hope of expanding. He says she helped impose "tough new international standards on any new reactor built in Canada, in doing so hurting AECL's ability to sell new reactors to the government of Ontario. She also ended 'pre-reviews' of new reactors, a process that warns operators if there are fundamental barriers to them being granted operating licences. Both measures have made AECL less attractive to potential investors at a time when the government is mulling whether to sell off all or part of the nuclear operator."
The CNSC is responsible for ensuring the safety of nuclear reactors. The reactor shutdown affected the scheduling of medical diagnostic procedures- not cancer treatments. So, while there was real inconvenience, it is hard to make a case, as both Lunn and Stephan Harper claimed, that "lives were at risk" by waiting a few additional weeks for safety concerns to be resolved. The issue has many classic hallmarks of another 'manufactured crisis'. What the government created, however, appears to have become a monster.
Firing Keen- undoubtedly at the direction of Harper- makes it harder for the Commission to fulfill its mandate of protecting public health and the environment. It focuses attention on the fatal conflict of interest that was created by having a minister of the Crown responsible for both a licensee (AECL) and its regulator (CNSC). In the past that conflict also produced problematic results, but differently. The CNSC and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), were frequently accused by environmental groups of being pro-industry. Staffed as they were by nuclear energy professionals, these charges had a lot of credibility. And staffing was determined by the politicians, who favoured the industry as they do now.
What's new here is that the Commission has stood up to the industry- something that rarely happened in the past- and has been slapped down politically for doing so. Ironically, however, the government's action may have damaged the international reputation of Canada's nuclear industry- which is tied to having a strong independent regulator- and threatened the industry's growth. Ontario's Liberal government plans more reactors, and many politicians, including Lunn, are promoting the use of nuclear power to extract oil from Alberta's tar sands. A public controversy does not help their cause.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty expressed concern about Keen's firing. He told reporters at Queen's Park "we need some stability and predictability when it comes to our regulator". He said the Ontario government has cause for concern because the discord between the CNSC and the government could delay the government's plans to build reactors.
The treatment of Keen also sends bad signals to a public becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of food products, water, air quality and the general environment, and adds to the growing list of (supposedly arms-length) quasi-judicial officials dismissed for "affronting" the Conservative government. It is natural for people to wonder how safe they are when regulators can so summarily be sacked for blowing the whistle on safety violations.
The greatest irony is what the move did to Conservative election hopes. By running roughshod over rules of ethics and drawing attention to tactics widely described as dictatorial and bullying, Stephan Harper has done nothing to convince voters he ought to be trusted with a majority government, or perhaps any government at all.
MOLLY COMMENTARY- As I have commented before I think that AECL should be privatized. As an anarchist rather than a leftist ideologue I do indeed meet taxes that I do not love and government bureaucracy that is not sacred. All that being said the machinations of our present government are generally Machiavellian, and what the above commentator says deserves attention. As to nuclear power in general Molly is also not a "greenie ideologue". Some of the concerns of those opposed to this method of power generation are exaggerated. What is not exaggerated is that nuclear power is by its very present technological nature a centralizing method of supplying a necessity, a government sponsored boondoggle that drains economic resources into subsidies to industry, either public or private and starves other alternatives of funds. It also, being as it requires such centralization, leaves the power system of areas supplied in this manner open to unforeseen disasters. Unforeseen only in that their nature cannot be exactly predicted, but very much foreseen in that such centralized and vast networks inevitably will fail. A great argument for more decentralized and local methods of power generation. But much more on this later.

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