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Linda Keen was fired in January 2008 after closing down a nuclear reactor for safety reasons. The government cited a shortage of isotopes essential to medical tests and procedures. It was a case of direct political interference of an arm’s length, independent regulator of a potentially hazardous industry.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) and its research reactor at Chalk River northwest of Ottawa. It produces 30% to 40% of the world’s medical isotopes. The reactor is built on a fault line.
AECL was required to install an emergency power supply that would shut down the reactor in case of a fire, flood or earthquake. But in November 2007, CNSC learned that the emergency power supply was still not installed. AECL shut down the NRU for routine maintenance but would not be able to restart the reactor until the safety issues were settled.
The medical community expressed concern about possible shortages of isotopes, a concern shared by opposition politicians. Such shortages had been evident for years: Chalk River was the oldest reactor in the world and was due for retirement in 2000. AECL’s replacement system was plagued with design problems. Meanwhile, other countries had failed to build their own isotope reactors relying instead on Canada's production. In 2007, before the crisis, the Auditor General reported serious failures by government to adequately fund AECL.
The Minister of Natural Resources, Gary Lunn, the Minister of Health, Tony Clement, and the Prime Minister repeatedly expressed alarm, stating that Canadians lives were being put at risk by an over-zealous regulator. “There will be no nuclear accident,” pronounced Prime Minister Harper, despite recent quakes of 3.6 to 5 in magnitude in the area. Mr. Lunn portrayed the disagreements between AECL and the CNSC over safety matters as a dispute between two “agencies” – when in fact one is the regulator of the other. The Prime Minister politicized the affair by referring to the Commission members as “Liberal appointees.”
Testifying before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources, Keen explained that the CNSC’s job is to regulate Canada's nuclear facilities to protect public safety and the environment. But, until the law was changed, the Commission did not have the authority to take the issue of isotope supply into consideration when considering the safety of the reactor.
The “isotope crisis” ended in December 2007 when Parliament enacted Bill C38, allowing AECL to restart the reactor once one pump - not the two required by license - was connected to an emergency power supply without applying for consent to the regulator. The reactor was restarted on December 16th.
Ms. Keen would later testify that “Parliament was faced with two competing interests: nuclear safety, on the one hand, and the need for medical isotopes, on the other—not an easy decision, and one appropriately made by the elected representatives of Canadians.”
During the controversy and in the weeks afterwards Keen reported that the CNSC had been under pressure. In a December 8, 2007 phone call and a December 27th letter to Keen, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn suggested that he expected the CNSC to answer to him. That was improper, Keen maintained in a January 8, 2008 response: “The Supreme Court of Canada has consistently held that the principles of fundamental justice require quasi-judicial tribunals to be free from political influence or interference.”
Keen’s firing came the night before her scheduled appearance before a parliamentary committee investigating the affair, effectively preventing her from testifying. At the time of the crisis, the nuclear industry (AECL backed by its private sector partners) was lobbying for more lenient safety standards for aging reactors in Canada. It also wanted relaxed safety standards and faster approval for a new reactor that it hoped would help the industry cash in on the expected worldwide revival of nuclear power.
Keen was seen as an obstacle. In 2006, she had announced more rigorous safety standards in line with international norms. Moreover, the commission was under-financed and understaffed and could not conduct pre-licensing consultations on the ACR1000, the next-generation Candu reactor.
Duane Bratt, a Political Science professor at Mount Royal College in Calgary studied the controversy. He concluded that there was "strong evidence that the isotope crisis was the opportunity to fire Keen not the cause.”
Bratt maintained that the controversy was staged to weaken nuclear regulation. “The CNSC, under Linda Keen, had terminated pre-licensing activity for AECL's new ACR-1000 reactor (which) … would have put AECL at a significant competitive disadvantage with the competing reactor companies … just as a Canadian and global nuclear revival was taking place," said Bratt. "The new CNSC President, Michael Binder, quickly agreed to pre-license the ACR-1000, and the government over the last two budgets has committed almost half a billion dollars to the process.”
Quoted in the Times Colonist, Keen said “Gary Lunn really wanted me to support AECL’s new reactors and devote resources that should be regulating to looking at the new reactors, and I said that was impossible…” Curiously, when the NRU was again shut down in May 2009 – a shutdown that lasted not just one month but fifteen months – there was no outrage by government ministers about the threat to life and limb of Canadian patients.
On May 28th, 2008, Linda J. Keen, was presented with the 2008 Women in Nuclear (WiN) Global Award in Marseilles, France. She received special recognition for excellence in communications, education, leadership and mentoring in the nuclear sector.
- 2001: Keen becomes head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
- 15 January 2008: She is fired from her position, during her second term, after closing down a nuclear reactor for safety reasons.
- 22 September 2008: Keen resigns from the CNSC board.
Role or Position
Former President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
Implications and Consequences
- Transparency: Unjustified loss of an outstanding watchdog who helped ensure the safety of Canadian nuclear facilities, to avoid disasters like the one that has taken place in Japan.
- Free Speech: A significant chilling effect on the practices and decisions of other tribunals who are responsible for important work on behalf of Canadians
- Transparency: Less rigorous regulation of a potentially hazardous industry, an industry that can count on the Harper government rushing to its defence and shooting the messenger.