ITQ goes nuclear (round two): Liveblogging AECL and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission at Natural Resources

That’s right, after spending the first part of our day watching AECL’s chief financial officer shift uncomfortably under questioning at Government Operations, once more into the breach we plunge, as the Natural Resources committee hears from the embattled nuclear agency’s president, Hugh MacDiarmid, as well as Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission chair Michael Binder. Considering how wildly laudatory the latter was towards the former during his last committee appearance, ITQ isn’t expecting much in the way of apocalyptic  fingerwagging from the nuclear regulator, who definitely doesn’t seem to have any interest in becoming the new Linda Keen.

3:13:45 PM
Well, the meeting hasn’t even started, and tempers are already flaring, although in this instance, it isn’t the MPs getting cranky but the press — specifically, David Akin and your humble livebloggatrix — who arrived in the Railway Room to the sight of Commons maintenance staffers in the midst of disassembling the media tables, which produced the predictable reaction. After somewhat strained negotiation – which eventually required an intervention by gallery officials – we had our tables back; it may sound like a trifling misunderstanding, but over the last few years, we’ve learned through bitter experience that, when it comes to safeguarding access on the Hill not to cede an inch of territory without a fight.

Now that peace has broken out and ITQ has staked out her spot at the table — on the left side of the room, right behind the still empty chair reserved for AECL vice-president Bill Pilkington — she can report a good turnout amongst her journalistic colleagues — including a surprise appearance by Colleague Mitchel!

3:25:33 PM
Gavel down, kids! The chair – Leon Benoit – gives the usual introductory spiel, and notes that he’d like to wrap up the witness portion of the meeting by 5:20pm so the last ten minutes can be spent on future business.

With that, he hands the floor over to Hugh McDiarmaid, who kicks things off by telling the committee that AECL has no intention of operating an unsafe reactor – they’re going to work round the clock, seven days a week, to put the Chalk River facility back online, in the most transparent way possible – to the public, the medical profession, clients, shareholders – and this committee. In fact, he’d like to take this opportunity to invite the members to tour the Chalk River facility!

With that, he turns the presentation over to Pilkington – who, for some reason, I wrongly recalled having an Australian accent, and has consequently left me feeling vaguely disappointed as he gives a technical recap of exactly what went down on May 14th – before, during and after the automatic shutdown.

3:31:18 PM
It will be “at least” three months until the unit is back in isotope-making business, Pilklington admits — it’s a complex undertaking, this nuclear reactor repair business, and they’ll only know what will be required when they’ve cleaned out all the – radioactive stuff – and can do a full review of the reactor.

3:34:18 PM
Okay, AECL gets the ITQ Award for Most Succinct Opening Statement of the Week, an honour to which we believe all witnesses should aspire, no matter how lovingly their staff have prepared those 36 page PowerPoint presentations and accompanying talking points.

Geoff Regan takes the lead as we move to questions; not surprisingly, he wants more details on exactly what has to be done before the repair work will be complete; MacDiarmaid acknowledges that the three month timeline is probably too optimistic, which doesn’t seem to surprise Regan. Apparently, it comes down to how long it’s going to take to drain the fuel – they can’t inspect it until it’s empty – which will take at least two weeks.

3:37:48 PM
Regan moves on to the question of alternate sources, and seems a wee bit sceptical of Lisa Raitt’s bright assurances earlier today that the rest of the world is willing to pick up the slack. MacDiarmaid admits that the Netherlands reactor can’t make up the difference, and agrees that the upcoming shutdown of the Patton reactor – I think it’s possible I’ve misspelled that, but you get the gist – will, at least temporarily, “exacerbate” the supply crisis.

These witnesses are definitely taking the right approach to responding to opposition questions, by the way — candid, no sugarcoating, no wild-eyed optimism.

3:40:39 PM
After the chair cuts Regan off – time is, after all, of the essence – the Bloc Quebecois’ Paule Brunelle takes over, and notes that MacDiarmaid – who was appointed by this prime minister – hasn’t had the best luck since taking the job, what with Chalk River, and the cancellation of the Maple reactor project, and then Chalk River again, and possibly again — I’ve lost track. Anyway, he agrees – see? I don’t know why more witnesses — or politicians, for that matter — don’t take that approach; if there’s really nothing positive to say, just suck it up and admit it didn’t work out as well as you’d hoped.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right – MacDiarmaid, who notes that his first decision – to cancel the Maples – *wasn’t* the most auspicious omen, but points to the progress that has been made since then. Brunelle, however, still finds the situation “worrying”, particularly for patients.

3:46:16 PM
In response to a question from Brunelle, MacDiarmaid puts the kibosh on any crazy notion – or media report – that the Maples may be brought back online; it’s just not the case, he says — they aren’t in “hot standby” mode, but are actually about to be put to sleep.

Brunelle gives the rest of her time to the never-smiling Luc Malo, who castigates the AECL of yesteryear (which actually was just a year ago, and was the result of a long, painful series of bad decisions that were made before MacDiarmaid’s time, in his defence) for failing to plan for the possibility that the Maples might turn out to be lemons, as far as isotope production. In response, MacDiarmaid — agrees, for the most part. “Our world changed” when the Maples were mothballed, he tells the committee.

Nevertheless, when queried about his faith in Chalk River by Nathan Cullen – do you think anyone ever calls him Nate? One meets so few Nates these days – MacDiarmaid insists that he still believes Chalk River will be a secure source of isotopes. I guess that’s better than the alternative, given that he *is* the president of AECL.
3:52:04 PM
Cullen tries to pry the identity of the department or agency responsible for ensuring an adequate supply of isotopes out of MacDiarmaid, with no success — “I’m really not comfortable identifying particular officials,” he confesses — but it *is*, he acknowledges, the government of Canada.

3:54:57 PM
After a brief sidestep into what he sees as the inevitable conflict of interest that results from having both AECL and the nuclear regulatory commission report to the Natural Resources minister — MacDiarmaid refuses to agree or dispute the contention, and Cullen assures him that they’ll get to that during the next round – the discussion turns to the question of the cost of bringing a reactor back online after it has been “mothballed” for months. Pilklington corrects him — while “mothballing” is the correct term for a reactor that has been left idle, in this case, the reactor will be under active repair throughout the period of time that it isn’t producing isotopes.

3:58:59 PM
And now, a word from the government, or rather, Brad Trost, who tries to get MacDiarmaid to say that *this* shutdown has been handled far more competently than the last one, as far as communication and public concern, which he — doesn’t really do, in fact. He then goes into a suspiciously technical line of questioning about negative coefficients, and manages to lose ITQ completely in the shuffle.

Moving on, Trost wonders if AECL is willing to help other countries increase their respective production of isotopes, and while MacDiarmaid agrees that they have the expertise, he reminds Trost that the priority has to be restoring Chalk River to full capacity.

Finally, Trost wants AECL to explain exactly *why* there is “absolutely no threat to the public” from Chalk River, and Pilkington obliges.

4:04:48 PM
Back to the Liberals, and Alan Tonks, who wonders whether we could “ramp up” the McMaster reactor in the short term, and increase the isotope supplies that way, and MacDiarmaid explains that it’s not so much the reactor that is the issue, but transporting the material from the Toronto area to MDS Nordion in Ottawa.

4:06:18 PM
Wow, that’s it for Tonks? These two minute rounds are killer. Anyway, Cheryl Gallant quizzes Pilklington on the leak detection system, eliciting a much-coveted “that’s a very good question” response. He notes that at Chalk River, leaks aren’t exactly common, but they *do* occcur; it sounds like it may be the result of a more sensitive trigger.

4:09:01 PM
Back to Malo, who still doesn’t understand why we haven’t developed alternative sources for isotopes – why? WHY? – and MacDiarmaid does his best to stay polite as he explains that it isn’t AECL’s job to help its competitors, as far as the isotope business; that’s more the bailiwick of MDS Nordion. Malo is unconvinced; AECL claims it cares about the health of people, but seems to be acting out of commercial interest.

4:13:12 PM
Mike Allen – Blue Team, if you haven’t figured out the rotation for second and subsequent rounds – wants to know whether AECL plans to conduct extensive repairs on the reactor, or just fix the problem currently keeping it offline, and Pilklington assures him that the top priority is resuming isotope production.

4:15:20 PM
Oh, interesting: Nathan Cullen suggests that they call the next set of witnesses – the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission – but keep the AECL officials here too; the Conservatives definitely don’t like that idea one bit, even though – as Cullen points out – it would simply involve adding two chairs to the table, and going from there. Benoit reminds him, somewhat snittily, that the committee invited the witnesses to appear separately, and that’s what’s going to happen. I honestly don’t understand why they’re digging their heels in on this, and neither do the opposition members. Accusations are made, the word “shutdown” is used in a non-Chalk River context, but the chair goes ahead with his plan, and dismisses the witnesses.

Two minute break, and it’s Binder Time!

4:20:58 PM
We’re back – for a slightly abbreviated 50 minute session with CNSC chair Michael Binder and Peter Elder, a director general at Natural Resources. The chair welcomes the witnesses, and gives Binder the floor.

4:23:16 PM
You know what? ITQ is going to implement a pilot program — a liveblog boycott of pointless opening statements that seem to be nothing more than a quick copypaste from the About Us section of the witness’ website. If Binder says anything noteworthy, I’ll let you know, but so far — oh wait, is this new nuance? He just told the committee that it isn’t the nuclear regulatory agency’s job to ensure a stable supply of isotopes; CNSC is responsible for making sure that those isotopes are being produced in a safe manner.

Wait – wasn’t that exactly why the government – with the help of Parliament – overrode Linda Keen’s decision? In fact, weren’t those very words – or words to that effect – used in the official order to restart the reactor, and wasn’t she blamed for not taking the health of Canadians into account?

4:30:14 PM
As Binder continues to pontificate — apparently, they’re going to webcast the next meeting between the CNSC and AECL on the status of Chalk River – Thomas Mulcair has swept into the room, and has installed himself beside Cullen. Not sure whether he’s going to take over the questioning or not; I guess we’ll see.

4:32:21 PM
Binder wraps up his presentation, and
Regan asks *him* about the Maple reactors — isn’t it true, he asks, that one of the two units *did* produce isotopes? Neither Binder nor Elder can confirm that, but Regan doesn’t seem to be ready to give up on the idea just yet.

He then quizzes Binder on whether AECL has sufficient expertise in its workforce to operate Chalk River, and Binder seems to dismiss the question; he’s not a nuclear physicist, he’s the safety monitor, and Regan notes, with passive aggressive wistfulness, that he wishes he could have asked that question of the witnesses from AECL.

4:36:58 PM
Tonks takes over for the last two minutes of Liberal-allotted time, and brings up the unsettling matter of metal fatigue – which, honestly, just sounds like a big bag of bad when it involves nuclear energy – and Binder takes umbrage at the portrayal of Chalk River as a creaky, outdated facility — really, it’s *fine*, fifty is the new thirty, as far as these reactors go. Brunelle, however, is also alarmed by the reports of corrosion, and Binder reminds her that it’s “not easy” to just pop inside a nuclear reactor to take a quick peek.

4:44:42 PM
Okay, opposition committee members, have you not yet figured out that Michael Binder is really, truly not the new incarnation of Linda Keen? It’s like they’re perpetually surprised when he doesn’t jump on board the Chalk River Debacle In Waiting bandwagon.

4:46:41 PM
Nathan Cullen revisits his earlier question – left unanswered – about the potential conflict; Binder reminds him that he reports to Parliament *through* the minister, not solely *to* the minister. Cullen asks about the decision to override the CNSC in December 2007, and Binder repeatedly reminds him that he wasn’t there at the time — the way *he* understands it, AECL offered to reopen the facility, but there was a ‘disagreement’, and some irregularities in communication, and — yeah, if Cullen thinks Binder is going to defend Linda Keen, he’s in for a disappointment.

Anyway, eventually, he hops over to the issue of privatization – and selling off bits of AECL. If a light starts flickering at Pickering, he wonders, will the CNSC be under pressure not to make a big deal, since the government may be looking for a buyer? Binder assures him that he feels entirely independent, and challenges Cullen’s contention that the prime minister could ‘fire’ him, just like he did the predecessor.

4:52:57 PM
Did the commission see this shutdown coming, Cullen wonders. No, they didn’t, according to Binder; Cullen, for his part, finds that a little bit disturbing.

5:01:15 PM
Oh, Leon Benoit is not happy *at all*: Geoff Regan just received, on his BlackBerry, no less, of one of the Maple reactors apparently producing isotopes, which he was only too happy to show the witnesses. As Benoit tried to keep smiling while snarling at Regan to get back in his seat, Binder once again waved away the apparent evidence of isotope-producing capability, suggesting that – okay, you know what? I didn’t actually listen to his answer; I was too entertained by watching Leon Benoit undergo a silent meltdown of his own.
5:04:45 PM
Malo wonders if the CNSC is “supervising” the repairs at the NRU; no, they’re not, because the repairs haven’t even begun yet; they’re still emptying out the fuel, remember?

5:06:36 PM
That’s all, as it turns out – they’re going in camera for the rest of the meeting, and ITQ isn’t going to make the chair even angrier by dawdling.

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