Nuclear watchdog rips Tories

OTTAWA, ONTARIO - The head of Canada's nuclear watchdog has shot back at the federal cabinet minister who threatened to fire her, accusing him of serious political interference in an independent agency.

Linda Keen's charge against Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn set off a new round of controversy over the government's handling of a shutdown of the nuclear reactor at Chalk River.

Keen counterattacked after details of a letter sent to her by Lunn became public.

Lunn said in the Dec. 27 letter that he might be calling for her removal as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission over her handling of the safety concerns.

Keen, in a letter to Lunn, rejected his right to fire her and criticized him for overstepping his authority.

The Chalk River reactor, run by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., was shut down on Nov. 18 for routine maintenance, but an inspection by the regulatory staff found mandatory safety upgrades – connecting vital cooling pumps to an emergency power supply – had not been done. That put the reactor in violation of its operating licence and AECL opted to keep it shut.

The result was a worldwide shortage of radioisotopes used for medical diagnosis and treatment, prompting the government to pass legislation to start up the reactor.

Keen, safety commission president for seven years, released a letter she wrote to Lunn accusing him of political interference and calling for a public inquiry or international review of the commission's role in the shutdown.

"The severity of the allegations contained in your letter could not be left unanswered, as a failure to respond to the claims would undermine the public trust and confidence in the CNSC as the country's independent nuclear regulator," she said, adding she had no choice but to respond to Lunn's letter after it was leaked to the Ottawa Citizen.

"The manner in which you have sought to approach these issues, absent or in advance of any formal inquiry, highlights a significant misunderstanding of the relationship between yourself, as Minister of Natural Resources, and the CNSC," she said. "It is my intention and expectation that I will continue to serve as president until my term expires in November 2008."

Critics are demanding that Lunn be sacked for threatening to fire Keen and directly interfering with the nuclear safety commission.

"Mr. Lunn must resign because... he is politically interfering in how she conducts her job in order to cover up for his failures," Liberal critic MP Omar Alghabra (Mississauga-Erindale) said.

"This is a blatant case of interference and Mr. Lunn should be asked to resign," said Green Leader Elizabeth May. Lunn could not be reached for comment. Many questions have been raised about Lunn's role in the isotope crisis, which was only averted with emergency legislation passed by the Commons, allowing the reactor to be restarted and operate temporarily without a second backup pump.

In his letter to Keen, Lunn says he is "writing to convey to you my deep concern with respect to the actions of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, of which you are president, that resulted in the continued shutdown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River, Ontario."

"These events have cast doubt on whether you possess the fundamental good judgment required by the incumbent of the office of president of the commission and whether you are duly executing the requirements of the office," Lunn stated in his three-page letter.

"These doubts have led me to question whether you should continue to serve as president of the commission. The measure taken by Parliament to adopt Bill C-38 also suggests a lack of confidence by all parties in your judgment.

"The purpose of this letter is to provide you with an opportunity to make any submissions that you believe should be taken into account before a decision is made regarding your continued role as president of the commission.

"You should be aware that I am considering making a recommendation to the Governor in Council (cabinet) that your designation as president... be terminated while maintaining your status as a full-time member of the commission."

Alghabra said the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission should be free of political interference.

"If I want any regulator out there that adheres to the letter of the law it is the nuclear regulator. She was doing her job," he said of Keen.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) said Lunn's interference can't go unchallenged. "If Lunn doesn't back off, he should be shown the door," he said.

Critics said the Conservative government is scrambling to deflect attention from its role in the shortage of radioisotopes by attacking Keen.

Alghabra said details have emerged that show Lunn knew or should have known about the problem several days before he acted.

At first Lunn told Parliament he was not made aware of the shutdown and the resulting medical isotope shortage until Dec. 3. But according to at least one report, his office is now saying Nov. 29.

His office has acknowledged there were emails to the department and minister's office on Nov. 22 outlining safety concerns and the need to shut down the reactor, but did not mention isotopes specifically.


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