Chalk one up for the system: isotope flap proves it works

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?

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Randal Leavitt
14 years ago

The regulator was way out of line during the Chalk River showdown. If their earth quake ever happens there will be no headlines about the NRU – the broken dams on the Ottawa River will get the spot light. Every now and then a reality check is needed to wake up the CNSC bureaucrats.

The regulation burden placed on the nuclear fission industry is onerous. The methods used are inefficient. The goals are not clear, and the people doing the job are bored. Things have to change.

Canada has something to offer in this area with its “Smart CANDU” initiative. Automation can be used to monitor nuclear reactors – computers are much better than people for such boring tasks. IBM is also pushing progressive change into the reluctant nuclear power industry. Some hints of what is coming were revealed at the recent meeting of the IBM Nuclear Power Advisory Council.

A lot of very cold, clean, fresh air is needed to wake up all those dozing through all those regulatory meetings.

Steve Aplin
14 years ago

Good points Randal, especially about the catastrophic floods that could ensue from an earthquake in the upper Ottawa valley. Nobody is forcing OPG to make the Des Joachims dam complex earthquake-proof, though a breach there, especially in the middle of winter, would endanger far more people than a meltdown at Chalk River. What I mean when I say the system works is that this incident proves the Canadian regulator is not toothless or kissy-kissy with industry. We can argue about whether the CNSC’s relationship with AECL needs to be this adversarial, but for the benefit of objective lay observers it is better that the relationship is more adversarial than cushy. You are right, there are surely ways that nuclear complexes could be more efficiently monitored, and that CANDU license process could be streamlined without compromising safety. If there is ever a CANDU sale in the U.S. (don’t laugh, it could happen), the CNSC will have to transfer its knowledge and expertise to the NRC. The latter, having streamlined its own licensing process, will want the CNSC to have done the same.

14 years ago

Just in case you missed it, Jeremy Whitlock has a write-up of the events on his Canadian Nuclear FAQ site. My reading of events is that a valid difference of opinion on the timing of a safety upgrade should not have led to the prolonged closure, for which CNSC was at fault.

Steve Aplin
14 years ago

Thanks Joffan, yes I saw Dr. Whitlock’s excellent description of the event. My “system works” assessment was posted before the issue had escalated into a public slagging match. I don’t know that it is entirely the CNSC’s fault for that.

14 years ago

No, I agree, the public punch-up was unfortunate and unnecessary on all sides. Any calm reflective process on how to improve relationships and remits will attract little attention and the public will be left with the impression of nuclear regulation being run as a mud-wrestling match.

Steve Aplin
14 years ago

It will require some sure-footed maneuvering for the feds to get around the accusations that their desire to see CANDU sales in Ontario is what underlies their hostility toward Linda Keen. It doesn’t, but there may be the danger that the perception could grow legs. For the anti-nuke crowd, this is the same as the Sponsorship scandal was for the Bloc Quebecois.

It doesn’t look like this will become much more of a political issue, though. The opposition voted with the government to re-start the reactor. Are they going to pull a John Kerry, and try to explain why they now disagree with their original vote?

14 years ago

Well the reports of Linda Keen’s testimony serve to illustrate to me why firing her was the right decision. “Safe enough is not good enough”? Yes it damned well is, that’s what “safe enough” means. And her random-number game claiming the reactor “posed a safety risk 1,000 times greater than the international standard” (from the Ottawa Citizen) is just ludicrous. The addition of one layer of redundancy to unlikely-to-be-used safety system simply can’t shift the risk by that much.

Here is an AECL response, charitably described as “clarifying” Keen’s fantasy.

Steve Aplin
14 years ago

I also thought the one-in-a-thousand claim was a bit much. Everybody jumped on that, but it is essentially meaningless. Like I said, if I lived up in that area, I’d be more worried about an earthquake wiping out the Des Joachims dams.

The night before Keen appeared at the committee, CBC’s The National aired a piece in which AECL said it had sent a letter to CNSC some time in August indicating the EPSes still hadn’t been hooked up to the pumps. I didn’t hear anyone refer to that yesterday.

Here’s a question. When AECL was knocked out of the Dominion Energy competition a few years ago, was it because the ACR 700 couldn’t withstand a direct hit from a 747?

[…] the headlines last December, I said the whole flap proved the nuclear regulatory system works (see article). It’s true, it does work. The regulated company obeyed the regulator’s order not to restart […]