The Chalk River reactor shutdown escalated into a political issue last week, because a shortage of medical radioisotopes had developed along the worldwide supply chain. What does it say that the federal government overrode the nuclear regulator by ordering the reactor to resume production?
It says that the Canadian nuclear regulatory system works, and that everyone—from the regulator, to the company that runs the reactor, to the government and opposition—did their job, and did it well.
This is not a case of the government ordering an unsafe reactor to restart; the reactor works just fine. It is a case, unprecedented in our history, where the government (and opposition parties, I might add) decided to place concerns over medical well-being ahead of concerns over the possibility of a devastating earthquake in Chalk River. No one, including the nuclear regulator, believed or argued that the latter will occur over the next 120 days. After the 120 days, AECL will have to make the safety upgrades the regulator originally demanded.
All the rest—question period accusations, counter-accusations of partisan motives, etc.—is politics as usual. Canada is a Parliamentary democracy. What else should we expect?
U.S. observers should take note. Utilities down south are reaching a tipping point where on-site storage facilities for spent fuel rods are reaching their capacity. The U.S. nuclear regulator might not grant reactor extension licenses unless those on-site storage facilities are relieved. Meanwhile, Yucca Mountain remains unresolved. What will happen if a U.S. utility comes to a point where it cannot get regulatory approval to continue generating electricity?