In a posting a few weeks ago, we detailed some of the issues with a Canadian medical isotope reactor in Chalk River that had been shut down for maintenance, leading to a shortage of medical isotopes worldwide.
Two weeks ago the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Linda Keen, got handed her head in a bag and was fired from her job as the chief of the nuclear safety watchdog agency. Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn was the source of Linda Keen’s firing, the evening before she was scheduled to testify before a House of Commons committee about the reactor shut down.
In testimony yesterday, Keen identified that the National Reactor Universal (NRU) had been running without backup power for key systems for 17 months, exposing the public to undue risk of a catastrophic failure of the reactor. Downside to keeping the NRU cold, was a shortage of medical isotopes, worldwide.
The Government lined up on the side of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), who make money producing the isotopes, in a reactor that AECL owns and is supposed to operate safely. Since Linda Keen and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission was insisting AECL operate the reactor safely in accordance with the law, they were getting in the way of revenue.
Ergo, Parliament passed temporary legislation telling the CNSC to piss off and then Gary Lunn fired Linda Keen for showing "a lack of leadership": NRU went hot a few days later, providing medical isotopes again. According to CTV, the backup power and pumps are now installed.
In the world of electrical appliances, as an example, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) says that there are standards regarding how appliances are wired, flammability, durability and safety. Standards, like CSA, or Underwriters Laboratory in the US, mean you can buy an electric can opener and be certain you won’t get electrocuted, and the can opener won’t run amok slicing open your fridge if a switch fails.
The manufacturer of the electric can opener has to build it to a standard to be allowed to sell it. The standard means the manufacturer has to put in ‘expensive’ components, like safe electrical connections and provide documentation that the design is safe. CSA then tests samples and, if all is good, issues a CSA number for the can opener. As a consumer then, you can buy it and be reasonably certain that the electric can opener is safe to use for its intended purpose.
Ideally, a standards and safety organization, like CSA, TUV, UL and so on, operate in a friendly adversary atmosphere with the manufacturers. The manufacturers may grumble about having to prove safety, but they also know that enforced safety standards mean good products and less likelihood of the manufacturer being sued. The manufacturer also knows that without the CSA tag, they cannot sell their product legally.
Here’s the disconnect: The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is charged with making sure that reactors run safely, to the standards agreed to, in keeping with their mandate and legislation. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited knows the standards and rules, as they helped write most of them.
AECL decided to not follow the rules and the CNSC did what they are supposed to do: Stop the operation of a potentially unsafe reactor. For doing her job, Linda Keen got fired. The smokescreen put up by the government was that lives were being put in jeopardy because of the shortage of medical isotopes.
Which begs the question, what about the citizens of Chalk River, Deep River, Petawawa, Pembroke, Renfrew, Arnprior and Ottawa, being put at risk of the NRU going bad because of the safety equipment not being in place? There’s only a million or so citizens in range.
If the unthinkable had happened, Linda Keen would have her head handed to her on a platter because she didn’t insist on shutting down NRU for safety violations. Presumably, Gary Lunn would have fired her for not showing leadership again.
Funny how nobody is questioning the wisdom of AECL running their reactor without the needed equipment in place. Yes, the folks at AECL know how to run reactors safely enough, but the idea of a standards organization acting as the watchdog, is to have sober second thought and review of things.
Linda Keen did what she was supposed to do and got fired for it.
If you’ve got a opening for a senior executive in your company, you’d be well-served by someone like Linda Keen, who actually does the things she is supposed to do, instead of some meat-puppet like Gary Lunn who punishes the innocent.