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Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt.
Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt.

Secret papers left at news office Add to ...

The federal cabinet minister responsible for finding a replacement supply of medical isotopes after the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor will have to explain why secret documents about the nuclear industry were left at a national television bureau.

CTV reported last night that Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt or a member of her staff left a binder of sensitive material about the troubled nuclear industry with many pages marked "secret" at the network's offices in downtown Ottawa.

The binder was left almost a week ago, the network said, but no one has called to look for it.

According to the CTV report, the document reveals much about the money that has been pumped into the Chalk River and into Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that owns it.

One page of the document reveals that the government has spent $$351-million this year in the sprawling Chalk River complex where the NRU reactor was first put into production more than 50 years ago.

It also says that $72-million has been spent to "maintain the option of isotope production." The 2009 budget, which was released in January, did not specify how much money was being directed towards keeping a regular supply of the radioactive material, which is used in a wide range of medical procedures.

The documents also say there has been a cost overrun at AECL of $100-million in this year alone, said CTV. That includes money to refurbish the Bruce nuclear reactors in Ontario and money to pay for cost overruns at other reactors around the world.

In addition, says the document, the Conservative government has spent $1.7-billion at Chalk River since taking office in 2006.

The government announced last week that it would seek buyers for AECL's nuclear reactor business, and bring in private-sector management for the problem-plagued Chalk River facility.

But Ms. Raitt will now have more than the reactor problem on her hands.

The mishandling of secret documents has already led to the resignation of one Conservative cabinet minister. Maxime Bernier was forced to quit as Foreign Affairs Minister a year ago after admitting he left top secret documents at the home of his girlfriend Julie Couillard, a woman with ties to the Hells Angels.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will likely not be pleased that documents were left with reporters. Calls to his spokesman were not returned last night. Nor did Ms. Raitt's communications director return calls.

The Chalk River reactor was taken out of service nearly three weeks ago after a leak of heavy water was discovered following a power failure. Officials at AECL have since said it will take at least three months to repair and some have mused that it may never be put back into service.

The NRU reactor was responsible for about a third of the world's supply of isotopes. Since the shutdown, a reactor in South Africa has been able to make up some of the shortfall.

Patients across Canada began to feel the pinch this week as nuclear medicine specialists reworked schedules to ensure that the limited remaining supply went to the most urgent cases.

The isotope issue resurfaces a year and a half after the government fired the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission because she would not allow the Chalk River reactor to operate until safety upgrades had been made.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff demanded to know yesterday why the government had not come up with a plan for an alternate supply in the intervening months.

"By week's end Ontario's isotope supply may shrink to 10 per cent of need. There are isotope shortages in British Columbia and Saskatchewan," Mr. Ignatieff said.

"The government has known about this problem since November 2007. The question is, why does the government pretend they have a plan when they do not have any isotopes?"

Mr. Harper, who has large stayed out of the debate during the current shutdown said the current emergency was unexpected.

"That said, our government and the company has been working with isotope suppliers around the world to attempt to manage this situation. Of course we are also in communication with the medical community on how best to address this," he told the House.

"The fact of the matter is the reactor had to be shut down for safety reasons, and those safety reasons must be paramount."

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