Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pointing Fingers and Laying Blame

The Toronto Star has been quick to blame the Harper government for the isotope 'fiasco' and has repeated their criticisms many times.

Which is quite unfair given the circumstances, but I wouldn't care so much if I didn't think they were playing fast and loose with the facts in their quest to blame Harper for this.

How long must Canadians wait for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to settle on a remedy for the shortage of medical isotopes? The issue has been on Harper's desk ever since Linda Keen, who then headed the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, first raised "serious concerns" in 2007 about the Chalk River research reactor and tried to shut it down. She was overruled, but the reactor was finally shut down last spring anyway.

The concerns that Linda Keen had with the Chalk River research reactor was only tangentially related to why it ultimately shut down in 2008. Her concerns stemmed from the fact that it was extremely old while the actual reason it shut down was because it sprung a leak caused by corrosion. Her reasoning was that the reactor was operating in a way that increased the risk to the public, while the government's (and Liberal Party's) reasoning was that the health crisis that would have resulted from keeping the reactor shut down outweighed the risk presented by the reactor.

Moreover, in 2007 there was a planned remedy for the shortage of medical isotopes, the MAPLE reactors were still under development. However, they still could not satisfy one key requirement set by the CNSC and (ironically) Linda Keen and were attempting the first fix.

They sunk hundreds of millions of dollars between 2000 and 2008 and predicted that if they performed one engineering fix that everything would be okay and it would operate as required by the CNSC. That fix failed to wholly solve the problem (although it did partially improve it) and spawned more tests that would (maybe) identify the problem.

It was then in 2008 that the Canadian government decided that it was tired of pouring money into the black hole that was the MAPLE project, canceling the project mid-way through the new tests that might have found the engineering fix that was required.

Ottawa could also opt to restart the problem-dogged MAPLE reactors, though the panel sees "significant challenges" there.
The "significant challenges" the panel sees are because many of the scientists involved with the project that are predicting success with just a little more time and a few more million dollars are the same ones who failed to give Canada a proper reactor in the first place and failed to fix over the eight years that they had been given. To give a good comparison, construction of the reactors started at the end of 1997 and the first was completed in mid 2000.

Whatever the decision, it is Harper's to make. And he should make it soon. Indecision is shaking confidence in Canadian nuclear know-how at a time when Ottawa wants to make sales to Ontario and abroad. And it sure doesn't reassure patients who need timely care.

What was truly a body blow to Canada's reputation for nuclear know-how wasn't Harper's cancellation of the MAPLE projects, but the fact that Canadian nuclear experts built a reactor that did not operate as they predicted it would and could not satisfy the CNSC requirements which were well known and understood even after being allowed to double the project's bill and increasing the time frame by 8 years. Then when they attempted to fix it, they made predictions they could not keep.

Harper was stuck in a catch-22. Cancel the project and forfeit all the money spent and any potential gains. Or continue to pour money into the project and hope that the people who brought us into this mess could get us out of it. He chose the former and decided furthermore that AECL needed to be restructured to keep it from hemorrhaging money. Recent experiences with Point Lepreau have justified that decision even more.

1 comment:

shlemazl said...

"Her concerns stemmed from the fact that it was extremely old"

The issue was to do with a safety pump. AECL said they would install it but didn't.

Maple is basically a design which works just fine in Korea. AECL figured that should modify it and screwed up.

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