So, no buyers for Chalk River, huh? – Liveblogging Lisa Raitt on the sale of AECL’s reactor building division

ITQ heads over to the National Press Theatre to watch Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt makes it official: She’s selling off shares in the AECL division that actually makes money, at least in theory – and with lots and lots of subsidies — and bringing in outside experts to manage the beleaguered Chalk River unit.

11:01:10 AM
Greetings from the hallowed halls of the National Press Building, where I’m one of the first few reporters to arrive on the scene, which gave ITQ a front-row seat to witness the press gallery logistics team in action, first performing the all-important setting-up-of-the-conference call, and then politely, but firmly, ejecting from the press theatre a Liberal MP who wanted to watch the announcement, but didn’t plan on delivering her party’s official reaction from the podium. We have rules, y’all, when it comes to allowing politicians on to our turf, and freerange, open concept scrummage is best done in one of the many other venues better suited for such activities. Honestly, if we gave government and opposition MPs a free pass, it would quickly degenerate into a battle over which side could fill the most seats, with the working press eventually relegated to the hallway outside.

Apparently, opposition MPs were also barred from the technical meeting earlier this morning, which, according to our MP, constitutes a “travesty”. Such is the price one pays for open and accountable government, I guess.

Anyway, the room is starting to fill up with legitimate press conference attendees — one of whom, of course, whistling the theme from The Simpsons — and the press kits are being handed. The government, you will be pleased if not entirely surprised to learn, is about to “move forward” on the restructuring of AECL, although the words “privatize”, “sale” or “open to bidders” appear nowhere in the two page release.

11:14:47 AM
Thirty second warning. Places, everybody!

11:16:46 AM
And – here’s the minister! Oh, and we *will* get the Liberal — and NDP — reaction after all, from David McGuinty and Nathan Cullen, respectively. First, though, a few words from Lisa Raitt.

The current AECL structure, Raitt solemnly avers, puts the government at risk; it also hamstrings Canada’s ability to exploit the global market. The NRU is just too small, and we need to “better position” the corporation, the employees and the country, which is why the government has hired N.M. Rothschild and Sons to develop a restructuring plan, and has also brought in former CIBC World Markets Important Position of Some Kind David Leith. She has consulted with the corporation, unions, experts — everyone. They’ve totally been preparing for this, and oh, for the record, this announcement was in no way brought on by the recent unpleasantness at Chalk River, and the (possibly permanent) shutdown of its isotope production capacity.

“There are no short term, easy solutions,” Raitt reminds us.

11:24:33 AM
And – questions! First up, CBC’s Susan Lunn, who wonders if the timing of this announcement has anything to do with the $50 billion deficit. Oh, like she’d admit that even if it was true. Anyway, not surprisingly, the minister dismisses the very notion, prompting Lunn to wonder if she has any plan to protect the CANDU technology, and the continued flourishing of research and development. Raitt assures her that the nuclear scientists responsible for the wonders of progress at ACEL are close to the government’s heart.

11:27:06 AM
Graham Richardson does not seem to be impressed by the heavy use of happy-sounding words like “moving forward” — Chalk River is broken, the government is plunging into debt — it’s just a mess, he concludes. Raitt doesn’t see it as all bad news – she sees an opportunity. A cris-atunity? We can only imagine. Anyway, she thinks we should focus on the positive, and build for the future, but Richardson crankily reminds her that our competitors – for the Ontario bid, that is – are “ready to go”, whereas it could take ten years for AECL to build a new reactor. Raitt — whose enthusiasm is seemingly undimmed by the cynicism seeping out of the gallery like so much heavy water.

11:30:04 AM
CanWest’s David Akin wonders whether the minister still believes it’s a “good time” to sell such a potentially valuable asset, and she suggests that this isn’t about “selling” as much as “bringing in” global investment.

11:33:39 AM Helene Buzzetti is a bit suspicious at the timing as well – oh, we’re such a conspiracy-minded bunch – and wonders whether Areva — our hated French rivals on the nuclear reactor battlefield — was the catalyst for this announcement; not surprisingly, Raitt denies that this is the case. There’s also something about a former senior PMO official possibly benefiting from the decision to go private, but the allusions are sufficiently vague (if pointed) that the minister is able to get away with a similarly vague answer. Hmm. That sounds potentially interesting, doesn’t it?

11:35:18 AM
Another reporter — sorry, I didn’t catch who it was — wants to know a little more about what the government is going to do about the whole Chalk River debacle – my word, not his – and Raitt puts on her most reassuring, there’s no need to panic here voice as she outlines the steps that are already being taken, both to repair the facility and ensure a steady supply of isotopes.

11:38:25 AM
And here’s the Sun’s Greg Weston, who has been pursuing this issue like a bloodhound with a nose for nuclear catastrophe: He wants to know why, when Chalk River was shut down by Linda Keen, it was a fullblown crisis — “people would die”, the minister of the day told the House — yet now, it’s no big deal. “We can’t even find the health minister,” he notes — actually, her press secretary is listed as a co-contact on the Chalk River-centric release, not that this is the same thing — and Raitt acknowledges that the reactor is down, but goes down the list of all the reasons why we shouldn’t panic. “Are lives in danger this time?” Wonders Weston. Raitt doesn’t say yes, and she doesn’t say no — they’re ‘very concerned’, but they’re doing “the best they can do.” So – A for effort?

11:43:34 AM
A question about oversight at Chalk River – which Raitt insists is independent, what with the existence of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and its arms-lengthedness. But, wonders the reporter, is that really “independent” when the chair can be fired at will? Apparently, yes.

A last round from Canadian Press — Steve Rennie, who wants to know if there is a timeline for the sale — not one with actual dates, apparently — as well as the status of the bid on the Ontario project; Raitt reminds him that this is all subject to negotiation, but tells him that both governments share a deep concern for the future of the Canadian nuclear industry. (He very nearly didn’t get that followup question, by the way — an overeager CBC reporter jumped in with a “one more question, minister”, only to elicit a similarly prepackaged flow of now familiar talking points.)

That’s it for the minister — up next, the opposition reaction!

11:49:59 AM
David McGuinty takes the stage; his very-very-serious-and-actually-a-little-alarmed face blows Raitt’s it-always-sunny-in-Chalk-River fauxvervescence out of the water, I have to say. He gives a brief, yet still unsettling recap of how we got here – unscheduled shutdown after unscheduled shutdown at Chalk River, the first isotope crisis, the firing of Linda Keen – and suggests that this announcement may have been an attempt at a “preemptive strike” against the Natural Resources committee, which has apparently launched an emergency study into the industry. Really? When did that happen? I’ll totally cover those hearings.

Anyway, he compares the plan to sell off AECL to Flaherty’s Who Wants To Buy The CN Tower? musings, dismisses the whole gambit as potentially catastrophic, and overall, does not seem to be a fan of the minister’s bold new forward-moving plan. The government is reaping the harvest of incompetence, sown by the firing of Linda Keen.

And – questions! First up, a bit of a refresher course on isotopes, and the absence of a Plan B, as far as the medical supply. There is a crisis. McGuinty tells us — and all the minister has to propose is an advisory committee.

11:57:52 AM
There have been four leaks and four “unscheduled closures” at Chalk River, McGuinty reminds us, which is unlikely to vault Canada into a position of global leadership. He believes the government is simply “buying time” with the advisory panel — this is a “ticking timebomb”, and this crisis has been unfolding on *their* watch. A reporter challenges him to say that “lives are on the line”, noting that the government isn’t willing to do so this time around, and he won’t quite acquiesce to the request, although he goes on at length about the shuffling and substitute-seeking at Canadian hospitals. “Where’s the minister of health?” McGuinty wonders – why isn’t *she* taking the lead?

It *is* a good question, actually — wouldn’t a joint press conference by *both* ministers have made more sense?

(On that note, I can report that the NDP has dispatched both its natural resources and health critics, although I’m not sure if they’ll both be at the mic when McGuinty cedes the floor.)
12:05:05 PM
The Sun tries to get McGuinty to suggest that maybe, Canada should get out of the isotope production business entirely, what with our money-losing, currently non-functioning reactor, but the closest he’ll come is to call for a “rethink”, although he maintains that coming up with a “plan B” should be the top priority.

12:07:55 PM
Okay, those emergency hearings at Natural Resources get underway next Tuesday — and yes, it seems that Linda Keen will indeed be on the witness list, along with the Canadian Medical Association and other groups; unless something goes seriously haywire in another part of the parliamentary forest, ITQ will definitely be there.

12:09:13 PM
McGuinty describes the health minister as “conspicuous by her absence” from this morning’s announcement, and assures all and sundry that Linda Keen is very much willing to come before the committee to discuss how very not-wrong she turned out to be, and suggests she might also talk about her wrongful dismissal lawsuit, which I thought was itself dismissed, but maybe I’m wrong. That, or it went to an appeal.

12:12:49 PM
On that note, McGuinty departs the stage, turning the spotlight over to the NDP — and yes, it really must suck to have to go third; the number of journalists in the room has steadily declined, not out of some sort of sinister anti-NDP bias, but because they have to *file*. Undaunted by the trickle-out effect, Cullen gives his take on the announcement — he, too, is alarmed by the plan to sell off AECL’s “toxic assets””, and concurs that it smacks a little of an “inside job”, what with the presence of a former PMO staffer involved in the private sector firm charged with making recommendations.

He’s joined at the mic by Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who focuses on the government’s plan for Chalk River; she echoes the argument made by McGuinty, as far as the charge that they’ve done “nothing” for eighteen months’, and points out that you can’t “ration” when it comes to something as crucial as cancer detection.

12:19:04 PM
ITQ has to admit that announcing an “expert panel” without naming a single member does seem to suggest the words “hastily arranged” could be applied to this particular press conference.

12:20:37 PM
Nathan Cullen thinks this is “a disaster in the making”; what’s more, the minister is deploying “smoke and mirrors”. He believes Canada *should* be in the isotope business, but thinks this raises questions about the direction of the industry as a whole.

Meanwhile, Wasylycia-Leis doesn’t like the idea of “putting all our eggs in an alternative basket”, as far as cancer detection. She *also* accuses the government of “shutting out” the health minister — who Wasylycia-Leis believes actually *is* deeply concerned about the implications of the isotope shortage.

12:24:53 PM Cullen points out — for a second time — the “clear conflict of interest” in bringing in Rothschild to provide recommendations, and notes that, at this very moment, the House is debating a government bill on limited liability for the nuclear industry, which – if passed as written – would put Canadian taxpayers on the hook for the lions’ share of any future damage costs. That does sound like unfortunate timing.

He also wants to know what kind of restrictions a privatized AECL will face as far as sales and exports — can Pakistan buy reactors? What about India and China? None of this will even go before the House, he reminds us — instead, it will be “former PMO inner circle people” making decisions on the future of the industry.

12:29:44 PM
CPAC’s Martin Stringer asks if Wasylycia-Leis is suggesting that the current health minister has been “kept out of the loop”, which WL admits is a hard question to answer; she does, however, think that the PM deliberately put Lisa Raitt in charge of this file because she can respond questions in a “technical” way. She blames “this whole government” for not taking this seriously — it’s a crisis now, and they owe us answers immediately.

And on that note – we’re out. Back to the Hot Room, and then the Senate Chamber for the very first liveblogging of the Other Question Period ever! (At least, I’m pretty sure it’s the first.)

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