Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Meanwhile, Back in Chalk River... (UPDATED)

... things continue to come apart at the seams.

Canada's nuclear agency misled the Prime Minister's Office about the nature and extent of a radioactive spill at the troubled Chalk River reactor west of the capital in December, a senior government official said yesterday.

"We are as upset as anyone," the official said.

The official was responding to an exclusive Sun Media story yesterday, detailing the reactor leak on Dec. 5 that released radioactive tritium into the air.

...After a brief shutdown, Atomic Energy has continued to operate the reactor even though officials there say they have not found the source of the leak and it may reoccur at any time.

In an unrelated mechanical failure, the same reactor has been leaking as much as 7,000 litres of water a day for more than a month from a crack in a weld.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says the water spewing from the weld has "a very low level of radioactivity" and is not a safety concern.

The water is being dumped into the Ottawa River.

One clarification: that 'unrelated' leak was reported more than a month ago, but at that point it had already been leaking for "several months".

Lisa Raitt, the natural resources minister responsible for the leaky reactor, told Sun Media yesterday that she has ordered a full written report on the radioactive spill from the nuclear safety commission.

Raitt said she and her departmental officials received an "e-mail briefing" on the leak the day after it occurred.

"There are some aspects that came out today that we weren't fully aware of,"
the minister said yesterday.

I'm guessing she's referring to the whole tritium thing.

Let's be clear about something. AECL, operating as it does on a for-profit basis, can to some extent be expected to downplay such an incident and even cover it up. That's what businesses do, whether they are privately or publicly owned. Which is precisely why we have a non-partisan, impartial nuclear regulator in the form of the CNSC to keep an eye on them and keep us safe.

Or we did, until Linda Keene was fired for doing her job last year. Since then, one can't help but wonder if perhaps her successor might be somewhat hesitant to examine activity at AECL too closely, or to step in and shut it down in any but the most dire circumstances.

Certainly not in today's job market.

Whether this is what happened in this case, or whether AECL really did manage to pull the wool completely over the CNSC's eyes as well as the government's, remains to be seen.

I'll be emailing our Minister of Leaky Reactors Natural Resources and see if I can get some answers - specifically, was that December email briefing from AECL or from the regulator? And, what exactly is CNSC's justification for not shutting down the reactor in order to find the source of this second leak?

It would have been nice to hear something from her today when CTV did a brief story about this on 'On The Hill', but apparently she was 'unavailable'. I guess she was busy with more important things.

(crossposted from HaltonWatch)

UPDATE: CNSC has issued a press release clarifying and on some points disputing the Sun article. Specifically, they report:

- At no time was the public or the environment at risk. There is no radioactive material leaking into the Ottawa River associated with these leaks. CNSC has on-site staff that monitors the NRU and ensures that it operates safely and is in compliance with its licence conditions. Any water released into the Ottawa River is treated and monitored by AECL according to environmental standards.

- The second leak referred to in the media reports involves light water leaking from the NRU reflector system. This water is collected by AECL and purified in the Waste Treatment Centre. Therefore, there is no leak into the Ottawa River and there is no risk to the public or the environment.

- Contrary to media reports, it did not take four days for AECL to inform the CNSC of the leak. The CNSC was made aware within hours of the leak and verified that it did not pose any significant risk to the public, workers or the environment.

None of which is good enough for the NDP, who are very keen to have a word with Ms. Raitt at the upcoming Natural Resources Committee meetings.

“Minister Raitt has some serious explaining to do,” said New Democratic Natural Resources Critic Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley), “Minister Raitt either knew about the leak and didn’t bother informing the public, or, didn’t know about the leak – I’m not sure which is worse. Either way, the Minister has let the people of Canada down.”


  1. Whooee! When you write to Lisa, ask her why they waited until budget day to make any public announcement. I guess the usual Friday 5pm slot for bad news wasn't quite low-key enough for this bombshell.

    Why didn't hey shut it down? Well, shutting down would certainly have made the news. Delaying the disclosure of a "significant leak" until the press is overwhelmed with budget and confidence stories, not so much.

    The official excuse is that they "can't" shut it down because it's supplying almost all of the world's medical isotopes. That is because a Dutch reactor has been shut down for repairs and maintenance longer than expected. The Dutch care about public health and safety more than AECL, CNSC and/or Lisa Raitt do.

    The budget throws a few more hundred million at AECL and Chalk River. Good money after bad, sez I. We've already thrown billions into the white elephants, Maple 1 and Maple 2.

    There is a new process that's recently been developed to create medical isotopes without a reactor. It's a Canadian discovery and could replace Chalk River with a safe technology. Instead of that, we'll continue to risk public safety with band-aids on a 51 YO rusting hulk.


  2. Here's a story about using particle accelerators instead of nuclear reactors to create medical isotopes.

  3. So I guess that isotope cash is going to Saskatoon instead of Chalk River? Or is the Canadian Light Source project ill-suited to that sort of industry?

    Wondering when I'll wake up with a third eye...or maybe just plain old cancer of some sort. I'd prefer the third eye. Especially if it's a fully-functional eye.