A (Chalk) River runs through it - Liveblogging AECL, CNSC and CNA at the Natural Resources committee

Fresh from her sojourn down electoral memory lane with the Procedure and House Affairs committee, ITQ will spend the rest of the afternoon at Natural Resources, where members will plumb the depths of Chalk River – the reactor, not the body of water –  with the help of senior officials from AECL, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Canadian Nuclear Association.

3:20:51 PM
You know you’ve picked the right committee when there’s a camera crew staked out in the hallway. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, really — it *is* Chalk River — but apparently somebody wasn’t expecting quite as much interest; once again, the media tables are glaringly conspicuous in their utter absence, which causing considerable consternation amongst my colleagues, particularly when a staffer tries to shoo us out of *their* chairs. After some rather tense words are exchanged with the actual chair – Leon Benoit – we’re allowed to remain in the staff seats, but nobody is terribly happy about it, and Nathan Cullen brings it up once the meeting begins, and suggests that in future, they take into account the potential public interest in a particular meeting when booking committee roons. Benoit concurs, and hands the floor over to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s Michael Binder, who gives a brief, bright overview of his agency.

I guess we’re not going to hear from all three organizations together, are we? That’s a shame, really — it’s always more interesting to put everyone on the same hot seat; that way, they can’t just point the finger at whoever isn’t there.

3:34:55 PM
Binder is definitely going out of his way to reassure the committee – and, by extension, Canadians – that our nuclear facilities – including NRU – are safe as houses. Or kittens. Or kittens in houses.

Hey, Geoff Regan feels the same way as I do! He suggests hearing opening statements from all three groups now, but David Anderson points out that the agenda has been out for days, and they never brought it up before now.

3:38:11 PM
Not surprisingly, Nathan Cullen sides with Regan, and – can’t he move a motion? If all three opposition members agree, they’ve got the numbers to force a change to the agenda. It doesn’t look like the chair is going to change the schedule now, although honestly, it doesn’t sound like he has a terribly good reason to refuse; apparently, it wouldn’t be “fair” to the witnesses.

Nevertheless, Regan gives up the fight and goes straight to questions; first off, did he know that Gary Lunn – then the minister in charge – called Linda Keen twice to discuss the Chalk River situation? Binder’s response: “Different job, different life” – he didn’t know, and he isn’t willing to discuss hypotheticals. Regan presses him – wouldn’t it *bother* him to be contacted by a minister in that fashion? – but Binder refuses to bite.

3:44:18 PM
Regan moves on to the leak at Chalk River last December, and Binder gets distinctly tsetchy in response — he wants to “set the record straight”, as far as CNSC’s decision not to inform the public of the incident — as far as the agency was concerned, it just wasn’t that significant. Regan finds it hard to believe that he wouldn’t realize the public might want to know about the leak, given the kerfuffle surrounding the reactor shutdown just a year before, but Binder sticks to his vaguely defensive assertion to the contrary, although he does acknowledge that the commission is now studying whether all such reports should be made public, even if this wouldn’t have been done in the past.

A final question on the future of the Chalk River facility, as far as renewing its licence, that Binder doesn’t really answer, what with it being a) hypothetical and b) two years before the matter will come up, and Regan’s time runs out. I’m sure he’ll be back.

3:50:30 PM
Paule Brunelle also invokes Linda Keen’s name in her questioning; she’s also concerned about the potential for political interference, which Binder once again dismisses, saying that he is “completely independent”.

Brunelle, meanwhile, is “astonished” by his perception of the most recent leak as not worthy of public notice, and Binder promises to make information “easier to understand”, although he notes that nuclear physics isn’t exactly the easiest subject to understand. I can’t decide whether I find his arrogance to be endearing or offputting.

3:56:26 PM
When it comes to questioning a hostile witness, Nathan Cullen takes no prisoners, pursuing Binder on the leaks – both in December and this weekend – with no hesitation. “Is it still leaking,” he wonders. “Not to my knowledge,” says Binder, who seems to see his job as reassuring the public that everything is okay. There are hundreds of miles of tubes. Nuclear physics is hard.

4:00:04 PM
An interesting exchange between Cullen and Binder’s co-witness — whose nameplate I can’t see from this seat — over the comparative safety thresholds for heavy water between Canada and California — the former is a hundred times higher than the latter, apparently – before Russ Hiebert takes over questioning the witness. He points out that the CNSC report repeatedly refers to the fact that there was “no significance” to the incident, and “no risk” to the public. He wants to “unpack” that statement – what exactly does that mean? Binder notes that the boundaries are set by the international health community — they decide the parameters, CNSC just follows their lead.

4:06:28 PM
Okay, I think I’ve made up my mind: this sort of reflexive arrogance really isn’t working for this witness. Hiebert just gave him a perfect opening to explain just how minimal this leak was — how much are we talking here, relative to, say, a swimming pool, and Binder refuses — he can’t explain it (because nuclear science is *complicated*, remember) — it’s just miniscule. Okay, so – an eyedropperful into the Atlantic Ocean? Just give us a simile.

Anyway, Hiebert wonders if issuing a public notice for every one of these “miniscule” leaks could actually cause more public concern than continuing the current practice of — not doing that, I guess.

4:12:39 PM
Back to the opposition – David McGuinty, to be precise – who asks about an Order in Council from two Decembers ago, which adds a second aspect to the CNSC mandate – not only is it to take into account the safety of Canadians from unsafe exposure to nuclear material, but also the health of Canadians who depend on the facility for medical isotopes. Oh man, I forgot about that.

Anyway, in a recent interview with CBC, Linda Keen warned that the dual mandate could jeopardize public safety, and McGuinty wonders if Binder agrees. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t – in fact, he questions the premise of the question, since he doesn’t think CNSC has a dual mandate at all.

“Your risk management has been fettered by order of the Crown,” McGuinty snaps before the chair shuts him down, and moves onto rookie Conservative Devander Shorey, who wants to know what “heavy water” is, and my goodness, do your *homework*, newbies.

After a brief explanation, Cheryl Gallant takes over, and her strategy is depressingly transparent despite her attempt to seem charmingly unscripted – she just wants to give Binder the opportunity to go on at length about how not scary heavy water is – you could drink a glass of it and you’d feel fine! – by comparing it to a chest x-ray. She, too, casts a sceptical eyebrow at the notion of forcing companies to report even the smallest leak.

4:28:05 PM
One perk to sitting here in stafferland: you can actually see the members’ faces, which is a nice change. Right now, France Bonsant and Paule Brunelle are gazing at Binder with a mixture of disbelief and disdain.

4:29:31 PM
That’s all for Binder, as it turns out. The chair suspends for two minutes to allow the next two witnesses to set up, and reporters to do a few midmeeting scrums.

4:33:09 PM
And we’re back – well, not Binder, he’s still holding court on camera in the hall, I believe – but the rest of us. Next up: Hugh MacDiarmid and Murray Elston, from AECL and the Canadian Nuclear Association, respectively.

4:35:22 PM
Just as MacDiarmid launches into his opening statement, Bonsant pipes up to complain that she was given the wrong version of the written text — hers is half in English — which is swiftly rectified by the tireless unsung heroes of committedom: the staff. That having been dealt with, MacDiarmid resumes his speech, which so far sounds like it was lifted entirely from the AECL corporate webpage.

Oh, here we go: the leaks at Chalk River, from which the public was “never at risk.”

4:40:05 PM
To conclude – yes, I’ve spared you most of the bumph – repairing nuclear reactors is *also* hard. Oh, and Chalk River? Safe.

Murray Elston, meanwhile, begins *his* statement with a shameless promo for the CNA’s annual conference, which will address these issues *and more*, and to which all MPs have been invited. He also gives a shoutout to the budget, and then offers himself up for questions.

4:43:17 PM
Regan takes the lead again, and asks for an update on the status of the latest leak; AECL’s chief nuclear officer, Bill Pilkington, obliges, although he can’t actually tell the committee the precise quantity of water that leaked into the river.

Regan then makes MacDiarmid visibly uncomfortable by musing on the possibility that the government may privatize part or all of AECL, but his efforts to get a straight answer to a hypothetical question are for naught, even when Regan quotes directly from the budget of which Elston spoke so approvingly. As far as MacDiarmid is concerned, he is “perfectly comfortable” running AECL under its current structure.

4:52:28 PM
After Regan runs out of time, Brunelle takes over for the Bloc Quebecois, and quizzes MacDiarmid on how he can be so sure that he’ll continue to be able to meet the demand for medical isotopes; he points to various measures and policies already in place, but she wants to know if AECL is considering buying a reactor “abroad”, since the current facility just doesn’t seem to be working terribly well. MacDiarmid assures her that life extension is the “only practical alternative” — although the long-term solution is still up in the air.

Brunelle notes that in Quebec, hydro power is much more important than nuclear energy, and wonders why so much money should be invested in the latter. MacDiarmid, cleverly, stresses that nuclear power is “complementary”, and the conversation then shifts to Canada’s – well, Saskatchewan, really – impressive uranium supply.

Murray Elston is also a big fan of uranium, particularly of Canadian provenance. “We have a very long life expectancy indeed.”

5:01:53 PM
Nathan Cullen brings AECL’s somewhat cryptic reference to the leak on its website, which referrerd somewhat obliquely to an “unanticipated technical challenge” – and forces MacDiarmid to admit that yes, there was tritium in the water when it was released into the river. MacDiarmid, for his part, tries to turn it into a good news story for the agency by noting that it prompted the decision to shift to a lower threshold for disclosure.

5:09:53 PM
Back to the government side, where Mike Allen goes over pretty much the same ground as Cheryl Gallant covered with Binder – basically, five minutes of leading questions that produce assurances that these leaks pose no risk to the public.

“Obviously, you’re learning something from the Lessons Learned exercise,” Allen notes encouragingly; I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m vaguely cranky after two hours of this, but that seems like kind of an inane statement.

5:16:26 PM
Murray Elston – who is still here, by the way, despite having initially told the committee that he’d have to leave just after 5pm – also gives a rah-rah towards AECL’s mad lesson learning skillz, and reminds the committee that the industry itself is in “a bit of an upswing”, which is making it easier to recruit workers, and ensure future robustity.

5:18:27 PM
One more round – Alan Tonks, who seems oddly delighted to be here, and asks about the status of the licence renewal; MacDiarmid notes that AECL is working closely with CNSC staff to make sure it meets those requirements. There are also various internal committees – corporate committees, that is – and “thorough, regular reviews”. Tonks wonders if these are *public* reports; no, they’re not, although the minutes are available on the AECL website.

5:22:43 PM
David Anderson can’t resist gloating a little at how well this meeting has gone from *his* perspective; finally, Canadians have been reassured that the leak last December was entirely harmless, and he looks forward to the wall-to-wall media coverage of what a non-story it turned out to be. I’m assuming ITQ is is exempt from that, what with us fulfilling the all important liveblogging function. After another burst of cheerleading for the industry by Elston, the witnesses are released – and the meeting is adjourned, which means ITQ, too, is heading outwards, homewards and awaywards in generalwards.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.