Somehow, Camp Chalk River just doesn't sound right: Liveblogging RNNR's emergency hearing on isotope crisis - Macleans.ca
 

Somehow, Camp Chalk River just doesn’t sound right: Liveblogging RNNR’s emergency hearing on isotope crisis


 

Yikes — ITQ somehow managed to run smack into the clock while getting ready for today’s meeting, and is now forced to scramble to make it to the Hill in time to secure a front row seat for this afternoon’s command performance. Catch up on the backstory here

… and be sure to check back at 2pm for full coverage.

1:48:32 PM
Okay, shall we just officially declare this the Summer of Standing Order 106(4)? Because just as she was leaving her desk, we got the word via Liberal news release that there is yet another emergency committee meeting in the making: the case of Suaad Mohamud, we’re told, may be heading to Foreign Affairs next week.

Meanwhile, some members of the Health committee are agitating to bring it back to hear more about the government’s H1N1 plans, and ITQ has heard that the Agriculture committee may be reconvened as well — something about the independent report on the listeriosis outbreak — and there was even a rumour floating around that the Defence committee might be recalled to look into the Chinook chopper contract.

The summer break, it seems safe to say, is officially over — at least for parliamentary livebloggers: Anywhere, anytime, on any issue: If they meet, we’ll be there. It’s in the ITQ mission statement.

She’s there — or, depending on your perspective, here — right now, in the historic Railway Room, surrounded by dozens of journalists, witnesses, MPs, staffers and other committee hangers-on. As soon as the chair gavels down, we’ll be booted out, but only temporarily — and really, I don’t know why they can’t just hold the vote in public, but that’s another gripe for another day.

The roll call for today is as follows: for the opposition, we have Navdeep Bains, Geoff Regan, Alan Tonks and Carolyn Bennett for Team Liberal, flanked by Paule Brunelle and Luc Malo for the Bloc Quebecois, and Nathan Cullen rounding out the opposition table for the NDP.

Meanwhile, up for the government, we have …

Well, darn. That thrilling revelation is going to have to wait, because we’ve just been ejected by edict of the chair. Note to MPs: You can vote to keep the *pre-meeting* public too, you know. I’ve seen it done before, and really, it would save a lot of time and needless shuffling back and forth.

2:07:25 PM
The Liberals, ITQ may as well mention, since there’s nothing else going on out here in the hallway, are handing around a news release that accuses the Conservatives of “playing political games with cancer patient care” and having “refused” to hear from a half-dozen witnesses, including MDS Nordion and the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine, as well as the Quebec Association of Nuclear Medicine Specialists, Trois-Rivieres Regional Hospital and UWO Professor Albert Driedger. Unfortunately for her colleagues in the sound-and-moving-pictures media, the fact that there are no MPs out here explaining *why* they’re so ticked by the omissions is making this a difficult story to cover; it’s hard to convey the depths of outrage – feigned or otherwise – merely by showing a closed door.

2:14:45 PM
Oh boy, a scrum! David Anderson — the parliamentary secretary on duty, boggled all and sundry by stopping to take questions from the press before heading inside: He doesn’t see *why* the opposition parties are so cranky; they’re the ones who wanted to have this meeting in the first place, and they picked the witnesses. Somehow, I suspect Carolyn Bennett might have a slightly different version of events.

2:17:43 PM
And we’re back inside! The meeting, however, appears to be in some disarray; the first round of witnesses was supposed to get underway at quarter after sharp, but so far, they don’t even have name placards yet. Not a good sign.

Right, right, I owe you the rest of the roll call, don’t I? The Conservatives on deck for this afternoon’s business are as follows: David Anderson, Mike Allen, Devinder Shorey, Cheryl Gallant and Brian Jean. Leon Benoit keeps limply tapping his gavel; I think he may be trying to call us to order, but he seems to be suffering from a bit of a White Rabbitesque existential harriedness.

Oh, and now he’s going to read the letter into the record – the letter sent by four MPs, as per SO 106(4), that is – presumably to defend against the allegations of witness-scheduling mischief by the government. This is not, he reminds us all, the health committee — this is all about the natural resources-related implications of the isotope shortage. Which is why we’re hearing from nuclear engineers, and not, say, doctors.

So there.

2:23:54 PM
First up: Michael Ivanco, a veteran nuclear engineer and Chalk River alum, who is representing the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates. He seems a little bit bemused as to his presence here, but it’s not going to stop him from giving an opening statement, which seems to be a brief history of the Canadian nuclear industry, long may it — simmer. Or something. He does promise not to ‘shrink away’ from defending his colleagues, and — wait, does he think this meeting is about nuclear power in general? Because if so, ITQ has some good news and some bad news for him. He also seems to be a big supporter of AECL — which isn’t any more incompetent or prone to cost overruns than any other nuclear agency, he says, using the hated rival Areva as an example.

2:29:14 PM
On to the next panelist — or virtual panelist, since he’s coming to us live via webcam: Robert Atcher, the “immediate past president” of the International Society of Nuclear
Medicine — see, Liberals? He’s a doctor! — who describes it as a “double whammy” when Chalk River goes down when there are already reactors offline across the world. He describes the sorts of tests that rely on isotopes — really, it runs the gamut — and the disadvantages of using alternative treatments, which are more invasive, more expensive and more deadly. Well, he says “increased morbidity”, but the implication is the same. You know, with only 45 minutes booked for this segment, you’d think they’d skip the opening statements — or at least keep them short. I doubt if MPs will have time for more than one round of questions.

2:34:30 PM
One more virtual panelist — Sandy McEwan, who *does* have a vaguely Commonwealthian accent — I think it might be English, but I’m not positive — and who is currently acting as special advisor to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. The camera angle that they’ve set up for his appearance, by the way, is an overhead shot that looks unsettlingly similar to footage from suspect interrogations that you see on true crime investigative reports. Meanwhile, he’s not actually saying anything that we haven’t already heard from the minister, but notes that there have been regional disparities, in terms of the effect of the shortage, which he plans to study, but he wants to give credit to the medical community for doing its part to make the best of it.

2:38:43 PM
And now, questions! Leon Benoit is sounding *very* testy already, but he hands the floor over to Geoff Regan, who wonders who McEwan is representing today, and how he came to be the special advisor. Somewhat nonplussed, McEwan lists his qualifications, and after an abortive point of order by David Anderson, Regan asks whether McEwan agrees with the five motions passed by the Canadian Medical Association earlier this week. After some technical difficulties — it’s hard to have a back-and-forth with the witness with time delay and half-duplex audio, as it turns out — McEwan goes through the motions, one by one, expressing general support for the first two, as well as the one recognizing the response of the community.

2:43:18 PM
Turns out that the CMA motion on which Regan *really* wanted to hear McEwan’s opinion was the one that called on the government to investigate restarting the Maple reactors, and McEwan — looking distinctly uncomfortable even from this ridiculous angle — hems and haws, noting that it doesn’t fall under the mandate of the expert review panel — which isn’t an answer — before reminding the committee that he’s not a nuclear engineer. Which is true — so maybe it would have made more sense to ask one of the *other* witnesses that question, no?

I honestly don’t see how one can expect someone on contract with the minister to provide candid, independent, subjective answers to questions from hostile opposition members about *the very file on which he is advising said minister*. It’s like demanding the Chief Public Health Officer to tell the committee whether he’s being muzzled by the government — no matter what the answer, no one will be satisfied.

2:48:01 PM
Brunelle, showing that legendary Bloc Quebecois common sense, does precisely what ITQ would have done, and poses the question about restarting the Maples to Ivanco, who tells her that he doesn’t have any direct knowledge or expertise with those particular reactors, although he notes that he has some colleagues who have come out strongly in favour of doing so, and have suggested it could be done relatively quickly.

He also stresses that the government has provided reasonably good support for the industry — his industry, that is — but reminds the committee that the bigger issue is the need for a stable research reactor, which goes above and beyond isotope production, and delivers a spontaneous — but heartfelt and surprisingly effective — pitch to investing a few billion dollars in developing exactly that. Hey, since he’s here, he may as well let his nuke wonk flag fly, I guess.

2:53:35 PM
In response to a question from Luc Malo about what he suggests is a far more optimistic — even jovial — view of the situation, McEwan becomes downright irate: he takes great offence at the suggestion that he doesn’t see the seriousness of the shortage — he’s a doctor, he has patients, and he’s actually in the middle of a clinic right now.

He then returns to what is clearly his biggest concern — regional disparity — but finds himself facing a similar line from Nathan Cullen, who also reminds McEwan of his pre-advisory attitude — before being appointed ministerial advisor, he seemed to be much more worried about the short- and long-term impact of the Chalk River shutdown. Cullen eventually interrupts McEwan in mid-rationalization, and waves away the suggestion that Australia may be able to fill some of the gap, and hospitals can “scrape together” a contingency plan. What will a report that he may or may not release within the next few months do to help that? McEwan reminds Cullen that he’s not in government — he’s there to provide advice, and that’s what he’s doing. If Chalk River is going down, “we have to find alternatives”, and that’s — oh, now the two are talking over each other, but the chair shuts Cullen up to let McEwan finish his thought. Which mostly involves listing the various gerryriggings that hospitals are engaging in to deal with the shortage. Cullen wonders if anyone is collecting the data on where the shortage is currently being most hard felt, as far as those regional disparity, and McEwan points to the weekly forecasts. Isn’t that the opposite of what Cullen had in mind?

3:05:26 PM
Over to the government for what I suspect will be the last questions for this particular witness panel: Mike Allen wants to hear more about regional disparity, and how McEwan plans to get to the bottom of it; he’s going to investigate, and then report back, ideally later this fall.

Ooh, Carolyn Bennett and Nathan Cullen are huddling. The opposition united *can* — of course — be defeated, but it’s definitely easier to pick off the parties on by one. I’m sure that’s somewhere in the Big Book o’ DIY Committee Dysfunction.

3:08:44 PM
Well, McEwan appears to have left the frame, but Atcher — who, as an American, was probably expecting a bit more from an emergency House committee — congressional hearings are a much bigger deal — does his best to answer questions as Mike Allen runs down the clock on behalf of Team Government. He discusses the possibility of moving “irradiated targets” to Canada for processing, and — yes, that’s it for this panel. The meeting suspends for a few minutes as the AECL entourage begins to descend on the witness table.

3:17:08 PM
We’re back — with unexpected datesquares, even — as well as the entirely expected appearance of AECL’s right- and left-hand men, Hugh MacDiarmid — the president — and Bill Pilkington, the chief nuclear officer. After one of the chair’s trademark not-quite-a-jokes about their frequent appearances here — okay, so it’s not just ITQ who feels like she’s been here, heard that — he gives MacDiarmid the floor for what is, seriously, the least necessary opening statement timewaster yet, particularly since – as MacDiarmid himself points out – the company has posted regular bulletins on the status of the repairs, and the ever-changing schedule for putting the reactor back online.

3:23:48 PM
They’re hoping to have Chalk River back online by the first quarter of 2010! Yay! Less yay-inciting, but not surprising: according to MacDiarmid, restarting the Maple reactors just isn’t a viable solution to the isotope shortage. They’re in extended super-extra long-term shutdown mode, and that’s that.

3:25:38 PM
Navdeep Bains leads off for the Liberals, and gets both MacDiarmid and Pilklington to confirm that, before December 2007, there had never been a shutdown-induced global isotope crisis. Neither men could remember a similar one previous to that incident, although neither was willing to repeat, word for word, Bains’ contention that, as such, all such crises have occured on the Conservatives’ watch. Not that they were arguing, mind you.

I’m amazed Geoff Regan hasn’t leapt to the defence of the mighty maybe-isotope-generating Maples yet. Maybe he’s waiting for the next round to pounce.

3:32:01 PM
Paule Brunelle, it seems, is sceptical — politely, charmingly sceptical — that AECL will be able to meet its projected timeline for restarting the NRO; MacDiarmid reminds her that it’s not a hard deadline, but a commitment to get the reactor revved up some time within the first three months of 2010. Pilkington gives a fairly thorough update on the inspection and repair process so far, and Brunelle wonders who, exactly, will be picking up the tab: apparently, it will be the government, which will, MacDiarmid assures the committee, impose stringent requirements in exchange for handing over the necessary cash to do the work. Brunelle just doesn’t seem to believe that the NRO will ever really work again, but MacDiarmid assures her that AECL is taking all the necessary steps to relicence the Chalk River reactor.

3:39:15 PM
Over to Nathan Cullen, who wonders if anyone ever asked him — or the industry — whether it would be a good idea to just get out of the isotope business, as somewhat abruptly announced by the prime minister at the height of a previous go-round on Chalk River; as far as AECL is concerned, they’re going to keep making isotopes until officially told otherwise. Cullen thinks it’s “a little strange” that the expert review panel has put the Maple option back on the table, as far as possible solutions to the shortage.

Wait, isn’t the NDP anti-nuclear? I mean, in general — whether the shuttered Chalk River reactor or the untested Maples? Or are isotopes the exception?

3:44:14 PM
Nathan Cullen wonders whether jacking up isotope production at Chalk River last year — which was in response to so many other reactors being taken offline — could have exacerbated the damage — which is actually a really good question, although it doesn’t seem to have a simple answer.

With that, Cullen runs out of time, and Cheryl Gallant gets her first crack at the witnesses: she wonders why, given the lucrative isotope market, more countries aren’t jumping into the exciting world of alpaca farming nuclear medicine. Anyway, MacDiarmid explains, in the politest possible terms, that actually, it’s not the moneymaker that Gallant seems to think. Historically, it’s been hard to break even, let alone make a profit. Gallant has a few more questions — for some reason, she always seems to like to give the impression that she’s the ranking expert on all things Chalk River, and she gets very tchetchy if she’s challenged — which forces Pilkington to once again explain how tricky it is to fix a nuclear reactor.

3:55:15 PM
With just a few minutes left before the witnesses are set to be freed — well, freed into the waiting scrum, anyway — the chair imposes a two minute limits for the rest of this round, and Bains tries to get MacDiarmid to say that he doesn’t agree with the government as far as getting out of the isotope business; MacDiarmid, not having been born yesterday and being fond of having a job, does not. Although he doesn’t back down, either: As far as he’s concernewd, the world needs more Canada, in radioactive isotopic form.

3:58:33 PM
Another question on the Maples, and really, it’s entirely fair to say that AECL’s position has been resounding in its consistency on that particular issue, although no less so than the faith that its officials maintain in the longterm viability of the existing Chalk River reactor. Brunelle wonders why they won’t even *look* at other options, which she considers downright obstinate, and MacDiarmid reminds her that the expert panel will come out with its recommendations, but it’s up to him to follow current government policy.

4:04:18 PM
That’s it for the AECL gang — well, except for the scrums, although right now, the MPs seem to be hogging the microphones. Yes, even though the meeting is still ongoing — I don’t think anyone expects much from the next panel, although the one after *that* might be good.

4:12:56 PM
And we’re back! Actually, we were back a few minutes ago, but ITQ got waylaid by a departing Nathan Cullen, who is off to British Columbia, leaving the NDP’s seat to Peter Julian. As a result, she managed to miss the first part of Serge Dupont’s opening statement, but she’ll do her best to catch up. So far, it seems very enthusiastic — well, for a bureaucrat-turned-special-advisor-to-the-minister-on-nuclear-energy-policy, that is — and determinedly forward-looking, as far as not so much wanting to dwell on the past, or even the present.

4:18:02 PM
First question goes to Alan Tonks, and it’s a doozy — in a philosophical sense — his parameters, not ITQ — on whose responsibility should the state of Canada’s isotope sector fall? The answer is — oh, there wasn’t really an answer there; Dupont reminds him of the existence of the expert review panel, the mandate for which is focused on the production of isotopes to ensure the health of Canadians, with the economic benefit as a side issue. It turns out that Tonks just wanted to segue into another free-the-Maple-2-Two manifesto, and wonders what the government’s response would be if the panel recommends investigating that possibility. Dupont reminds him that the panel will report to the minister, not AECL, but also recaps the reasons why the Maples were mothballed.

4:24:51 PM
Paule Brunelle reminds the witnesses that this is, in fact, a “crisis” — she wants to know what the department has actually *done* since their last appearance. Dupont reminds her that this didn’t happen overnight, and can’t be solved with the wave of a nuclear-powered isotope-making magic wand. Brunelle, however, counters with crying constituents who want to know when they’ll be able to get treatment for *cancer*, and Dupont points out that the fastest way to do that is to get the reactor back online.

Does anyone else feel like we’re going in circles here?

Brunelle makes a pitch for the TRIUMF reactor, but Dupont reminds her that any solution — TRIUMF, Maples, you name it — will take time, and – in the case of the foregoing, considerable investment by the government.

4:34:45 PM
Peter Julian wants to know a little bit more about how much has been spent in the past to keep the Chalk River reactor running, and what it’s going to cost to get it back in something approaching working order. There’s a bit of back and forth on which department is responsible for paying the bill — Natural Resources or Health — and nobody seems particularly satisfied by the time the clock runs out.

4:39:14 PM
And now, a word from Devinder Shorey, who wants to know whether it would compromise the “safety or security” of Canadians to allow private interests to get involved in isotope production; the short and long answer, according to Dupont, is no. Shorey muses that it doesn’t really matter, then, *who* ends up building the new reactors that are needed; unfortunately, he doesn’t phrase his talking point as a question, but Dupont is a pro; he easily provides the answer Shorey was hoping for.

Also, Brian Jean would like us all to note that it was the Liberal government that slashed funding to AECL. Short-sighted, anti-nuclear monsters.

4:43:12 PM
Really, more David Anderson? I guess so. He wants to know what percentage of treatments are now being done using alternative methods, although he stops midway through to shoot a reproving look at Carolyn Bennett for interrupting him. Oh, and he’d like Dupont to explain why Bill C-20 — increasing the maximum nuclear liability — is so important to the industry, which Dupont does.

4:49:17 PM
Since it worked so well last time, Geoff Regan gets a very uncomfortable Dupont and markedly more blase Tom Wallace — the other, up til now unheard departmental witness at the table — to admit that no, there were no global isotope crises under the Liberal government, which ITQ is entirely due to the sound management and expertise in advanced nuclear physics of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, and has nothing to do with, oh, something other than the government of the day forheavensakes.

4:51:23 PM
And now, Cheryl Gallant would like to know whether all this consultin’ and discussin’ over the future of Chalk River isn’t a big ole waste of time. Dupont doesn’t go that far — or even close, really — but does agree that it makes little sense for the global supply chain to rely on one wee little reactor in eastern Ontario. It just makes sense, in his view, for the US to begin to increase its domestic production.

4:55:14 PM
Brunelle suggests that maybe there will be heretofore-unthought-of bright ideas in some of the 22 proposals currently before the expert review panel, and Dupont is — let’s say he’s not giving much away, as far as his views on what direction in which the panel may end up heading.

4:58:02 PM
Mike Allen gets to close down this, the penultimate panel of the day, with a question on — timeframes? The medium-term solution? It’s not totally clear to ITQ, but Dupont understands exactly what he means; this is about working with American counterparts — there’s that crossborder irradiated target Chalk River baton passing proposal again — and the possibility that the McMaster reactor might be able to handle that load, but even so, it would take until at least next September for that to come online.

5:02:57 PM
Somehow, we’ve wound up in the middle of a snarl-off between Regan and Anderson over — yes, you guessed it, the witness list. Regan wants to make sure that the committee holds a make-up meeting next week to hear from the witnesses that didn’t make the cut this time round, and Anderson responds by accusing the opposition of being hopelessly disorganized, not even checking the availability of their own hoped-for witnesses, and eventually denies unanimous consent.

Leon Benoit, for his part, is in a fit of pique over an irate news release put out by the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine, which – as per him – includes the signature of someone – Dr. O’Brien, with the Ontario branch — who, Benoit claims, was actually invited *and declined the offer*. So — he’s accusing a putativer witness of lying to the press? That bodes well for any potential future appearance.

Anyway, we’re now going to go back in time to the days before video conferencing, as it turns out, the next witness — Ontario Health Minister David Caplan — will testify by telephone. Yes, telephone. I know. *I know*. This totally demands another run at the snack table.

5:13:42 PM
The words “I’m glad to be able to bring Ontario’s voice to the table” have never been more unintentionally ironic; the voice – the minister’s that is – is everywhere but at the table, it fills the room like an omniscient narrator minus the, well, omniscience. He’s worried, that’s the gist of his opening statement — there are alternatives for some procedures, like one for bone scans that involves chemicals that ITQ isn’t even going to attempt to spell — but Ontario, as it turns out, has one of the best isotope disruption plans out there. They’re at a tier two level now, which triggers the partial activation of the ministerial operations centre, and works in coordination with the federal government. Ontario is in regular communication with Health Canada officials, but he – Caplan, that is – wants to know what the federal government plans to do in the non-immediate short term.

5:20:47 PM
After Caplan winds down, Benoit hands the floor over to Carolyn Bennett for the first round of questions in the last lap of the day, but not before warning all and sundry that if anyone veers outside of the mandate of *this* committee — which, he reminds us, is Natural Resources, not Health — he’s going to suggest they invite the witness to appear before that *other* committee. Bennett bristles a little at his attitude, but moves swiftly – in fact, at light speed for this member – to questioning the minister. Is he, she wonders, looking for compensation from the federal government for the cost of dealing with the shortage? You bet your bottom dollar he is — it’s the federal government, after all, that is ultimately responsible for the shutdown, so it can darned well pay the provinces for the inconvenience.
Bennett wants to know if Ottawa has fired up its operations centre, and if there has been any “leadership” shown by Sandy McEwan — or any federal official — to the provinces. Caplan doesn’t set fire to the bridge, but he doesn’t sound nearly as bright-eyed and bushytailed about the intergovernmental cooperation as the previous witnesses. Leon Benoit looks like he’s trying to set the speakerphone — or possibly Carolyn Bennett — on fire with the power of his mind, but has to settle for cutting her off with a tap of the watch. Seven minutes really isn’t much time at all.

5:28:34 PM
Malo wonders when he – Caplan – first contacted Ottawa about the dire effects of the shortage on medical care in his province, and Caplan gives a rundown of the various missives he sent — to both ministers, Raitt and Agukkaq — and reads excerpts from the responses that he got.

5:32:44 PM
After another plea from Caplan for compensation from Ottawa, Benoit — who has been looking increasingly bootfaced as the minutes go by, jumps in to warn Malo to stop asking the health minister about health matters. This was not, I suspect, how he had hoped the meeting would end — if there are any journalists still tuned in, there’s every possibility that they might *write* about this.

Geoff Regan rather waspily asks for unanimous consent for Malo to be able to ask whatever questions he wants, and the chair pretends to smile indulgently, and insists that’s not a point of order. He then *rereads* the letter from the opposition demanding the letter, thereby eating up a good five minutes of the 45 allotted for this, the final witness. Who, unlike those who appear in person, can’t be scrummed after the meeting.

The chair then throws a hissy subfit when Carolyn Bennett’s grumble is caught by the mic, but eventually has to let Julian — who thanks him politely for his filibustering — have the floor.

5:43:59 PM
Peter Julian is somewhat gobsmacked that it took the minister three months to respond to a letter from the health minister of the largest province in the country on an ongoing medical crisis, and Caplan doesn’t do much to mitigate the damage done by his statement. Meanwhile, perhaps as an exercise in stress relief, Benoit continus to hone his fingertenting skills. Don’t mess with *his* church and steeple, y’all.

Oh, the minister? He wants to see a plan. A plan! Wait, this is starting to feel like the H1N1 hearings.

5:47:45 PM
Hey, did you know Saskatchewan has “stepped up to the plate” with a collaborative proposal to the expert review panel? Because they have, Cheryl Gallant notes. What about Ontario?

Turns out that Caplan offered to work together in that letter he sent to the ministers, so Gallant didn’t quite get the hit she was hoping for, but it doesn’t stop her. She moves onto a question about targeted timelines, and treatment for patients that have already been diagnosed, which Caplan thinks is an *excellent* question, since it allows him to talk about the tremendous leadership of his government in that area before returning to his main theme: Where is the leadership from the federal government? Where? Where?

Well, ITQ can’t answer *that* question, but neither, it turns out, can anyone else – because the meeting has been adjourned. That was — abrupt. I could’ve sworn that the government had a few more minutes on the clock, but you know what? It’s nearly 6pm on Friday, and I’m not going to complain about being booted out into the sunshine. Have a great weekend, all!


 

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