Saturday, December 22, 2007

Harper-ism of the Day

And the number three story on Reuters 'Oddly Enough' today is...

Dalai Lama "is not a call girl"

OTTAWA (Reuters) - When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to explain in a year-end interview why he'd met the Dalai Lama in his Ottawa office, it was clear he wanted to show respect for the exiled Tibetan leader.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite come out that way.

"I met the Dalai Lama in my office but I meet everyone in my office. I don't know why I would sneak off to a hotel room just to meet the Dalai Lama. You know, he's not a call girl," Harper told OMNI television.

I'm tellin' ya - the Liberals don't have to say or do anything from now until the election. They just have to bide their time and let Harper keep hanging himself with his own rope.

By the time he's out he'll have enough gaffes to fill his very own Page-a-Day calender.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Halton Catholic School Board Bans 'The Golden Compass'

The following letter was sent to the editor of The Milton Champion in response to today's front page article.

Dear Editor,

I was dismayed to read of the Halton Catholic School Board’s recent decision to ban Philip Pullman’s award winning books from their school library shelves. While I’m sure they had the best of intentions, I am concerned that by trying to protect their students from ‘atheist indoctrination’, they may be inadvertently promoting someone else’s agenda.

I find it hard to believe it is a coincidence that the Board received its single complaint about Pullman’s books at precisely the same time that the right-wing Catholic League in the U.S. began its email boycott campaign against them. These are the same people who have targeted everything from South Park to Rosie O’Donnell to the infamous ‘chocolate Jesus’ sculpture as being ‘anti-Catholic’. I would not be at all surprised if the complaint originated from either the Catholic League or from someone who had received an email from them.

I would have hoped that most Canadian Catholics were capable of seeing through this kind of reactionary neo-conservatism, but apparently not. At least not in Halton.

I was also shocked to read that the Board made their decision in direct opposition to the recommendations of their own Book Review Committee. What exactly is the point in having such a committee if their recommendations are simply going to be ignored? From what I understand, the committee members were all required to actually read the book. Did all of the trustees do the same, or were they simply reacting to what they had heard about the author and his views?

Ironically, it is precisely this kind of suppression of uncomfortable and controversial ideas that has led Pullman to be so critical of religion in the first place. By banning his books, they have proven his point.

I wonder what will inspire more Halton Catholic students to question their faith: reading ‘The Golden Compass’, or being forbidden to read it.

Your truly,

Jennifer Smith

The Golden Compass

For all the controversy surrounding ‘The Golden Compass’, it is a surprisingly conventional British children’s tale. An orphaned child is raised in comfort by privileged relatives until one day she is taken away by some very, very bad people who hate little children. She then sets off on a quest to rescue her friends and save the world - with a little help from some witches, a cowboy, and an armoured polar bear.

The story is, of course, far more complex, fraught with meaning and metaphor. I don’t know how much detail was left out from the book, but I suspect it wasn’t enough. Not because of any anti-clergy themes that remain, but because the filmmakers just tried to cram too much information into a two-hour movie.

The film presents a fascinating and stunningly beautiful world filled with engaging characters, and I personally enjoyed it. I’m just not sure how many children or adults will have the patience for it.

Three out of five stars.

(You can read Murray's review in today's issue of The Milton Champion, along with news of the Halton Catholic School Board's opinion. More on that later.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The Thought Police are at it again:

The MPAA has rejected the one-sheet for Alex Gibney's documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," which traces the pattern of torture practice from Afghanistan's Bagram prison to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay.

The image in question is a news photo of two U.S. soldiers walking away from the camera with a hooded detainee between them.

An MPAA spokesman said: "We treat all films the same. Ads will be seen by all audiences, including children. If the advertising is not suitable for all audiences it will not be approved by the advertising administration."

According to ThinkFilm distribution prexy Mark Urman, the reason given by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for rejecting the poster is the image of the hood, which the MPAA deemed unacceptable in the context of such horror films as "Saw" and "Hostel." "To think that this is not apples and oranges is outrageous," he said. "The change renders the art illogical, without any power or meaning."

So, let me get this straight: showing a prisoner with a hood over his head is a depiction of torture, but actually waterboarding someone is ok? Showing three men quietly walking into the distance might offend passing children, but a naked screaming woman being hung upside down with snot hanging out of her nose is suitable for all ages?

Or is it the American flag being walked over they object to?

I suppose we can rest easy in the knowledge that this is not government censorship per se, as the MPAA is not a government organization but a trade monopoly association to which filmmakers can 'voluntarily' submit their movies and movie posters for ratings and approval. Of course if they choose not to, the MPAA will make damned sure that their movie never sees the light of day.

All of which raises the question, what exactly does the MPAA stand to gain by so blatantly kowtowing to the Bush administration's political agenda? For one thing, they get to keep the government out of the movie censorship business. And they get financially beneficial legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed.

Quid pro quo.

For more on the evils of the MPAA, read this excellent article, or go see 'This Film Not Yet Rated'. I think I'll be renting it tonight.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Chalk River: It's All Becoming Clear

What seemed like a suspicious but confusing sequence of events when I posted about Chalk River yesterday has now come sharply into focus, thanks to bloggers at The Galloping Beaver and Politics & Poetry who are much, much better at this than I.

Go read.

What I failed to understand yesterday was this: that AECL has wanted to shut down the NRU reactor at Chalk River (the 50 year-old one) for some time now and replace it with their new Maple 1 and 2 reactors (also at Chalk River). This explains why they have been so reluctant to make the required safety upgrades to the NRU. Why bother if they're just going to mothball it?

The problem? Maple 1 and 2 were supposed to have gone online back in 1999, but cost overruns and bureaucratic bungling put them years behind schedule, and now the CNSC has refused to sign off on them because, frankly, they aren't working properly and nobody can seem to figure out why. One CNSC official described it as "a problem with the reactor physics in the core" - a phrase which caused all the blood to drain from my husband's face (he used to work at the accelerator lab at McMaster University).

Dave at the Beaver put it best:
When the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission demanded a safety upgrade it probably ran afoul of AECL's plans - and the plans of the Harper government to sell off AECL. The CNSC was calling for a fairly expensive upgrade to a reactor AECL would rather not be operating. The same regulator will not issue licenses for the MAPLE reactors until safety concerns with them are rectified.

How do you reassure a prospective buyer that the regulator will not be a problem? Push the regulator out of the way.

Aside from the potential sale of AECL, there is another reason why the government is so anxious to switch over to their new reactors. The NRU reactor uses high-enriched uranium (HEU) which AECL buys from the U.S. and then sells back to them after they're done with it for use in their bomb program. The problem is, not only has the market for nuclear weapons taken a bit of a dive lately, but the U.S. has all but banned the transport and trade of HEU under non-proliferation regulations.

While the Maple 1 and 2 reactors were originally designed to use HEU, and AECL was actually stockpiling the stuff at one point in case their supply was cut off, it now appears that these new reactors will be using low-enriched uranium instead - at least according to AECL's website.

I suspect the odds of the CNSC signing off on these reactors in the next few months just improved significantly. And if they don't, well, Harper can just do another end-run.

Meanwhile, Canadian TV news continues to broadcast the over simplified and inaccurate sound bites spouted by the Conservatives with no attempt at analysis or investigation, while devoting half their newscasts to the Mulroney/Schreiber show.

Oh, look, a bunny...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Chalk River Timeline

I've been trying to untangle the sequence of events that led to the current mess at Chalk River and ran across this interesting tidbit from November 30th - less than a week before the 'isotope crisis' story broke:
Nuclear agency review may trigger privatization

The federal government is launching a strategy review of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to determine whether the maker of the Candu nuclear reactor needs to be restructured, a move industry observers say will likely lead to a partial privatization of the heavily subsidized Crown corporation.

"It is time to consider whether the existing structure of AECL is appropriate in a changing marketplace," Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn said yesterday.

"This review will give us the information we need to make the right decisions for AECL and the right decisions for Canadians."

Lunn's ministry will lead the review with help from the Department of Finance and "with assistance of outside expertise."

The Toronto Star, citing industry sources, reported in July that the federal government has been in talks to sell the commercial business of AECL and has already held informal meetings with U.S.-based General Electric Co. and France's Areva SA – both of which have expressed an interest in AECL.

This was followed in October by an internal reorganization at AECL, which saw five business groups broken into two distinct divisions – one devoted to commercial reactor sales and the other focused on research and development, and nuclear waste management.

I can hear Naomi Klein chattering in my ear again. I can't quite make out what she's saying yet (shut up, will ya?!), but it doesn't sound good.

Just so we've got this straight, the sequence of events runs something like this:

July 2007 - Conservative government starts investigating the possibility of privatizing AECL.

October 2007 - AECL splits itself into two distinct divisions, presumably to facilitate the sale of it's reactor sales division.

October 25 - The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) announces decision to renew the license for the Dedicated Isotope Facilities at Chalk River, due to expire Nov. 30: "Considering that the DIF is not yet fully operational and that AECL must complete a substantial amount of outstanding commissioning activities before the facility can be declared in service, CNSC staff will carry out enhanced monitoring of the facility throughout the licence period."

November 18 - AECL shuts down Chalk River reactor for scheduled maintenance.

November 29 - Tories announce a review to determine if AECL should be restructured and partially privatized, and in the same breath announce Canada's participation in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

December 4 - AECL announces that it is voluntarily extending the shutdown so that it can comply with safety upgrades required by its license. The CNSC indicates that it would have insisted on having the reactor shut down if AECL had not already done so.

December 5 - All hell breaks loose in the media.

December 12 - Harper pushes through legislation to get Chalk River running again despite the remaining safety issues.

December 13 - Harper slams both AECL and the CNSC, and forbids CNSC lawyers from advising or working on the Chalk River file.

What does it all mean? For starters, I think we can expect an announcement concerning the sale of part or all of AECL to a (probably foreign) corporation within the next couple of months. The government will use words like 'efficiency' and 'accountability', but really it's just a convenient excuse to do what they've been planning all along: privatize Canada's nuclear industry and simultaneously de-fang our regulatory commission so private enterprise can be free to do for nuclear energy what they've been doing for the oil sands out in Alberta.

As for how this all fits into the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, your guess is as good as mine. I'm quite sure the connection will become apparent soon.

(And for the record, I approve of nuclear energy. In principle.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nah... it'll be fine. Really.

Ottawa thwarts nuclear watchdog

A Three-Mile-Island-type of nuclear accident could occur at Canada's Chalk River reactor unless a backup power supply system, capable of withstanding natural disasters such as earthquakes, is installed, according to an assessment by the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

It is “essential” that the safety equipment be installed on two crucial pumps before the reactor, which makes more than half the world's nuclear medicines, is restarted, Linda Keen wrote in a blunt letter to two federal government ministers.

... AECL had shut the reactor for routine maintenance in November and then voluntarily kept it shuttered after discovering it wasn't in compliance with a long-standing CNSC licence condition requiring the backup power system. The equipment, known as motor starters, is designed to ensure pumps continue operating during earthquakes, floods, tornados and fires, among other disasters.

Hmm... water pumps... backup systems... addressing safety concerns before a reactor is re-started... Why am I having flashbacks to "The China Syndrome"?

But Uncle Stevie knows better, of course.

“There will be no nuclear accident,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserted in the House of Commons, saying the government has received independent advice indicating there is no safety concern.

“On the contrary, what we do know is that the continuing actions of the Liberal-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission will jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians. We do have the responsibility to demand that Parliament step in and fix this situation before the health of more people is put in jeopardy.”

Hey, at least he can pronounce 'nuclear'!

And BTW, that 'independent advice' Stevie chose to listen to? That would be from a couple of former employees of AECL which, while technically a Crown Corporation, sounds an awful lot like a private one in it's stated mandate.

I guess we should all just keep our fingers crossed for the next 120 days.

(edit - Garth Turner posted this gem. Thanks, Garth!)