Linda Keen finally made it before the House of Commons natural resources committee yesterday, and suffered the fate of so many witnesses in this polarized session of Parliament. The government tried to discredit her while the opposition parties praised and defended her. She emerged unscathed, and the Conservative government's disrespect for the independence of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission looked no better than it had.
Ms. Keen was fired as chair of the CNSC on Jan. 16, 12 hours before she was originally scheduled to appear before the committee. Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn fired her because she had held her ground against political pressure to restart the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Ontario, a reactor that had been shut down for routine maintenance on Nov. 18 and was found to be missing important safety equipment. Prime Minister Stephen Harper indefensibly attacked Ms. Keen in the Commons as a "Liberal appointee" and suggested the Liberals were involved in a conspiracy to deny patients around the world the nuclear isotopes necessary to diagnose and treat cancer and heart ailments - isotopes produced in great number by the Chalk River reactor.
Conservative committee members remained on the offensive yesterday, but it was clear they were reading into the Nuclear Safety and Control Act a responsibility that just isn't there. The CNSC's job is to regulate the creation of nuclear energy and the production of nuclear substances to "prevent unrealistic risk, to the environment and to the health and safety of persons, associated with that development, production, possession or use." Its job is to prevent nuclear reactors from melting down; it is not to cut safety corners to ensure the production of medical isotopes. It was the commission's view that Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., by its long-standing failure to install an emergency power backup system for two cooling pumps to guard against a meltdown of the Chalk River reactor's core, was taking an unacceptable risk - a risk, Ms. Keen told the committee yesterday, that was 1,000 times greater than that dictated by international standards. (Just how serious that is remains a subject of debate.)
Parliament overrode the CNSC's order last month. On the horns of a dilemma, it chose to place the safety of people around the Chalk River plant at some greater degree of risk in order to resume the flow of medically necessary isotopes and lessen the risk for thousands of ill people. It made a judgment call favouring AECL's assessment of minuscule danger over the safety commission's assessment of unacceptable risk.
That's Parliament's prerogative: to listen and decide. But that argument provided no justification for Mr. Lunn to fire Ms. Keen. She had done precisely what she was supposed to do in her position. Nothing in yesterday's hearing altered the impression that, in firing Ms. Keen, the government was in the wrong.