Cold comfort for sacked Canadian nuclear regulator

At the start of the year I commented on the political defenestration of Linda Keen, head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The dirty deed was done by a conservative government embarrassed by technical faults and lax management at a research nuclear reactor responsible for producing around half the world’s supply of medical isotopes used in cancer treatment.

Chalk River Laboratories

Keen ordered the reactor closed down until the legally required backup cooling pumps were fitted, but the regulator’s political masters in Ottawa overruled the decision, allowed the reactor to continue operating, and decided to shoot the messenger for her sins.

Given the potential crisis of a world shortage of radioisotopes, many in Canada and elsewhere supported the government’s decision to keep the reactor running, despite the safety risks involved. But at the same time they deplored the way in which the affair was handled by the politicians.

The situation has since deteriorated, as a leak of radioactive water from the Chalk River reactor means that it will be offline until the end of this year, at the very least.

The government is now warning of a significant shortage of medical isotopes, and all health and natural resources ministers Leona Aglukkaq and Lisa Raitt can say is that they are “disappointed” at the decision of Atomic Energy of Canada to shut down the reactor. Raitt says, and without a trace of irony, that the latest shutdown differs from the previous one in December 2007, as the government now has the “benefit of hindsight”.

As for being disappointed, surely the history of nuclear technology teaches us that problems ignored will always return to bite us in the bum. Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine, says:

“We called it a catastrophe in May and it turns out to be a disaster. The government has been in denial.”

So how long will it take to fix Chalk River? For Urbain, hopes that the reactor will be online again by the end of this year are misplaced:

“The last time the NRU reactor had such a leak, it took two years to fix. The question in my mind is: Will the NRU reactor be able to function ever again?”

It is after all a very old reactor, built as it was in 1957. For the now ex-regulator Keen, who can only take cold comfort from the latest developments, this is not a regulatory problem, but rather one of ageing technology that has become thoroughly unsafe.

Hat tip: Jim Monk