Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Yet Another Chalk River SNAFU

The Chalk River NRU is leaking again. It's been shut down, again - this time for at least a month. And once again, people are questioning why nothing has been done.

There are a few differences between this crisis and the one a year and a half ago. For one thing, the medical community at least is somewhat better prepared and has a contingency plan in place that should see them through for a little while. Maybe a week.

For another, this time it only took four days between the shutdown and discovery of the leak and its revelation to the public and (presumably) the government in the form of a quiet notice on the AECL website. But hey, it was a long weekend, right?

We also have a whole new cast of characters as well. Instead of Tony and Gary we now have Leona Aglukkaq and Lisa Raitt, both of whom have issued identical "Everything is just fine" statements buried in the back pages of their respective ministry websites.

Even after years of neglect and mismanagement, there are still solutions available to fix this mess. But none of them are pretty, or cheap, and none appear to have been actively pursued by the Federal government. One is to get serious about refurbishing the Chalk River NRU instead of continually patching it together with duct tape and baling wire while placing buckets under the leaks. But that would take money, and a commitment by the government to keep the place up.

Another is to try to salvage the now-mothballed Maple reactors. Unfortunately, that may prove to be even more difficult and expensive to accomplish since the problem there is a fundamental design flaw that would require starting again from scratch so they don't... you know... Chernobyl.

Possibly the best potential long-term solution is the use of particle accelerators to produce medical isotopes. Such a plan is actually in the works between MDS Nordion and the TRIUMF particle physics lab, but unfortunately its still in the feasibility study phase and wouldn't actually start producing isotopes for many years. The government could probably help things along, but since TRIUMF is funded through the National Research Council and the NRC is having $27.7 million cut from its budget over the next three years, it may take a while.

With the government apparently determined to maintain their hand's-off approach, it's hard to imagine how we might avoid the worst case scenario described by David Akin's unnamed government friend. That scenario would involve MDS Nordion pulling up stakes and moving their operations out of the country, possibly out of the continent, leaving 1,000 people in Kanata thrown out of work and the Canadian taxpayer on the hook for the decommissioning and clean-up of the Chalk River site.

Not a pretty picture at all.

BTW, when I asked Lisa Raitt about the government's plans for AECL a few months ago, she said that they were waiting to find out whether the Crown corporation would be getting the contract for Ontario's nuclear power expansion. Now that it appear they will, in fact, be taking on the $26 billion project, what does this do to the Federal government's planned "restructuring" of AECL? Will some of that contract money and/or money from the sale of assets be spent to fix Chalk River once and for all, or on the approximately $7 billion it's estimated it will cost to shut it down and clean it up? Or will the cash simply get tossed into the deficit hole as part of Flaherty's still undefined "revenues from asset sales"? And what exactly were the results of that strategic review of AECL that was supposedly completed months ago?

I'll be sending a note to Ms. Raitt with all of these questions. I'll let you know what she says.


  1. Is there not, in the back of the Conservative mind (such as it is) a plot afoot to sell off AECL to the private sector?

    What a great time for this to happen and allow them to say ... "See, Free enterprise can operate this thing better than any government!"

    Oh - I see Obama, in his budget has cut back drastically in funds for nuclear power.

  2. They've been wanting to do that all along - and even commissioned a report telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. The only problem was, they needed to cut Chalk River loose first or nobody would want to buy it.

    I likened the plan to selling the store but keeping the dumpster out back.