Safety second at Chalk River nuclear reactor?

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With the April 26 anniversary of Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear accident approaching, North Americans must consider the disastrous nuclear power runaway lurking at the Chalk River National Research Universal (NRU) reactor. At Chernobyl, near Kiev in the former Soviet Union, an unregulated, irresponsibly operated nuclear reactor exploded with catastrophic damage. Its after-effects dwarfed even those of the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.

Exacerbated by radiological fires, Chernobyl explosions rocketed enormous quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere, across Europe and around the world.

A severe accident at NRU would release contamination to the adjoining Ottawa River, including tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, which bonds chemically with water. Tritium cannot be removed from water by conventional treatment methods. Tritiated water is absorbed immediately from the gastrointestinal tract. The Ottawa River would carry these and other toxins towards Ottawa-Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City, and other population centres.

Uncertified Chernobyl managers stubbornly operated their plant outside its design limits, driven by "instant-production-first, safety second" imperatives of the dysfunctional late-Soviet command economy.

Safety second calamities also threaten at NRU. The Harper minority government in Ottawa, on December 12, 2007, abruptly terminated Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission regulation of NRU, in Bill C-38.

Mimicking late-Soviet imperatives, the Harper government, represented by Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn, pushed Bill C-38 through a compliant parliament within hours.

Bill C-38 empowers the federally subsidized Atomic Energy of Canada Limited to "resume and continue the operation of NRU at Chalk River in Ontario for a period of 120 days âe¦ despite any conditions of its license."

Bill C-38 justified its "production-first" risks with claims that NRU "is the major producer of medical isotopes in Canada," whose regulated shutdown "has created a serious shortage of medical isotopes in Canada and around the world."

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) President and Chief Executive Officer Linda Keen tenaciously resisted Harper, and defended orderly CNSC scientific inspections.

In November 2007, CNSC staff discovered license violations and major equipment vulnerabilities at NRU, concluding that NRU cannot safely withstand an earthquake.

Emboldened by baseless, panicky "all party assent" to Bill C-38, Lunn abruptly demoted Keen from the CNSC presidency on January 15. In February, Keen sought judicial review of her demotion.

Wounded by Chernobyl, which nearly destroyed public acceptance of nuclear commerce, the primary trade magazine Nuclear Engineering International in February likened Lunn's abrupt dismissal of Keen to "the pompous authoritarianism of a Victorian mill owner berating an errant charge-hand."

Globally, industry organizations recommend good-faith operator compliance with arms-length nuclear regulators.

Keen belatedly became skeptical of special nuclear industry pleas for unsafe, "socially necessary" licenses.

Near Chalk River in Pembroke, Ontario, nuclear industry firm SRB Technologies argued for their extra-legal manufacture and processing of hazardous tritium illuminating equipment. SRB represented their off-grid lighting as essential for "national security" at NATO airfields.

SRB was the first deliberation where Canada's nuclear safety regulator refused a license application from a major nuclear industry firm.

The Keen tribunal's January 31, 2007 "reasons for decision" explained: "[SRB] has not taken all reasonable precautions to control the release of a radioactive substance within the site of the licensed activity and into the environment."

In the past, Keen, who on January 1, 2001 was appointed to head CNSC, routinely volunteered for nuclear industry promotions.

Thus Keen chaired the Canadian Nuclear Association-sponsored Women in Nuclear (WIN) May-June 2006 Global Meeting in Waterloo, Ontario. WIN executives include representatives of AECL, Bruce Power, Ontario Power Generation and other CNSC licensees.

Despite Keen's loyalty, the nuclear industry, through Lunn, viciously turned against her. To help Canadians comprehend this public and parliamentary cooptation, I shall rebut the fallacies underlying Bill C-38.

Myth #1: the NRU reactor is the world's sole producer of essential radioisotopes.

In fact, researchers recently began deeper scrutiny of the alleged "radioisotope shortage." Toronto Star headlines also tell the story: on February 6, "Isotope crisis overblown. MDs say,"; and on March 1, "Government inflated fear of medical isotope shortage: Backup supplies were readily available from reactors in Europe and South Africa."In February, Nuclear Engineering International charged: "If these isotopes are so important, then it is somewhat puzzling that at no time has anyone - AECL, MDS Nordion, or the relevant government ministry taken steps to ensure continuity of supply, or even to raise the issue."

Myth #2: the risk of an earthquake in eastern Canada is slight.

Writing on the earthquake potential in eastern Canada with support from Keen's CNSC predecessors, Ontario geoscientists including Wallach and Mohajer reported that, "Modest to large earthquakes have affected eastern Canada, among the largest of which were the 1663 Charlevoix (Quebec, magnitude 7.0) and 1929 Grand Banks (Newfoundland, 7.1) earthquakes."

The investigators warned of significant geological faults in the Niagara-Pickering area of western Lake Ontario, whose anticipated earthquake risk "should not just summarily be dismissed." (Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 1998 pages 762-786 and 2002, pages 45-74).

In conclusion, CNSC drifted perilously near the licensed industry, disempowering it from adversarial regulation until the January 2007 Pembroke turning point. During the November 2007 Chalk River crisis, Keen overlooked traditional legal prosecution of individual license violators.

Spirited Canada-wide defence of Keen's newfound, principled leadership role is essential for nuclear safety in Canada and internationally.

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