Tuesday, July 28, 2009

AECL comes out in favour of...an AECL decision

There's an op-ed in the National Post today, "Don't count on MAPLE to deliver medical isotopes," that was to be expected given the number of experts who have in fact said the Maples reactors, the planned backups to the Chalk River NRU, can work. This op-ed comes from Jean-Pierre Labrie, "...the manager of reactor physics and systems behaviour, office of the chief engineer, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL)." Labrie is a long-time employee of AECL, the body that decided to shut down the Maples, with the approval of the Harper government in spring of 2008.

As you can read, he's clearly knowledgeable and offers his take on the challenges with the reactors. It must also be pointed out that as an AECL employee, he has a vested interest in defending the AECL position of having shut down the Maples and perhaps his own role in that decision. AECL is also being sued at present by MDS Nordion for having stopped the Maples reactors, so his "no we can't open them" op-ed should be read with that consideration in mind as well. Not to say that his view should be ignored, but these reasons must be factored in and this view certainly should not eclipse the views of the many others who argue for the reactors to be pursued (for e.g., Linda Keen; MDS Nordion's expert; Dr. Harold J. Smith, ex Manager, MAPLE Nuclear Commissioning who said "The Maple reactor operated like a dream and was/is fully capable of meeting all objectives. All you have to do is finish the last test or put Hanaro-design fuel in it;" and, independent expert John Waddington who said: "The MAPLE reactors were safe throughout their operating history in terms of the commissioning tests. If they were not, they would not have been licensed and they would not have been allowed to operate.")

The crux of the argument offered here is that the Maples "fix" involves a "power coefficient of reactivity (PCR) issue" that Labrie suggests may be insurmountable, in contrast to the above views. He also says it would be a long-term fix and that there are hurdles such as regulatory approvals from U.S. & Canada for Maple-produced isotopes along with the issue of post-9/11 use of highly enriched uranium (but this seems to be capitalizing on the U.S. using this rationale in their own recent decision to pursue their own isotope solution now, an issue that did not crystallize until Chalk River shut down, combined with the Maples mothballing).

What would be eminently preferable would be a scientific decision made by unaffected experts who could assess all the competing opinions. But with Minister Raitt's long-term solutions panel an unknown factor and in light of this government's obvious preferences, to get out of this business in the long run, there's no reason to have any confidence at the moment that competing views will be reconciled in an impartial manner.

One other thing to keep in mind when you read about AECL coming out swinging on the non-feasibility of the Maples in such an op-ed, it should be pointed out that Cassie J. Doyle, Lisa Raitt's Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada sits on the board of directors of AECL. That's a conflict of interest undermining what should be independence between the AECL board and the Harper government in AECL's decision-making. At a time when AECL is sought to be privatized - the other big "high tech" privatization the Harper Conservatives are overseeing - there are all kinds of issues that will require non-conflicted decisions by that board (see this op-ed raising some of the questions that privatization presents). And at a time when the isotope issue's handling presents obvious political difficulties for the Harper government, the conflict of having a deputy minister sitting on AECL's board, the entity that manages the isotope production, is clear. Crown corporations operate at arm's length from the government, usually, and you don't see deputy ministers sitting on the boards of other major Canadian crown corporations. Why does the PM think such conflicts are acceptable for AECL?

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.