Well, this could get awkward: Liveblogging MDS Nordion at Natural Resources - Macleans.ca

Well, this could get awkward: Liveblogging MDS Nordion at Natural Resources

by

I mean, they’re still suing the government — well, AECL, but ultimately, it’s the taxpayer on the hook — for bailing on the Maple reactors, right? Won’t that make it difficult to engage in a free exchange of views — especially considering that one of their lawyers is on the witness list? Nevertheless, ITQ will be there, although she should warn readers that it’s likely to be a shorter-than-usual liveblog, since the committee is scheduled to go in camera after the first hour. Hopefully that will be long enough for a few rounds of questions, at least.

3:27:11 PM
Well, it may not be high profile enough to lure Mike Duffy back to the microphone, but today’s installment of the Natural Resources committee has the potential to be far more unpredictable than the PM’s stimulus roadshow: On the witness list today — and actually delivering his opening statement as I type this — is MDS Nordion president Steve West, who will give MPs his version of the unfortunate series of events that led to the cancellation of the Maple reactor projct, a decision with which it’s fair to say the company is *not entirely on board*, what with the billion dollar lawsuit currently pending against the Crown.

West is flanked by legal counsel – John Campion – as well as the company’s vice president for strategic technologies; also at the table: Universite of Laval professor Michel Duguay and John Waddington, who is billed as a “nuclear safety consultant”.

3:32:26 PM
As far as West is concerned, the decision to chop funding for Maple was wrong on many, many levels – wrong for Canada, wrong for the global isotope supply, wrong for patients and wrong for the future. So — put him down as undecided?

Anyway, he wants the government to “reactivate” the Maple project, and this is right about where we get into a terrifyingly complex game of he said/he said – the all-nuclear physicist edition, since there really doesn’t seem to be anything close to a consensus on the central question of whether the Maple reactors really were billion-dollar lemons, or have the potential to save the Canadian isotope sector, and possibly the world.

3:38:19 PM

The solution, West concludes, is here in Canada – the solution is clear, and the solution, apparently, is Maple. So there.

3:38:45 PM
With that, it’s over to Duguay – who has a PhD in nuclear physics from Yale, and a virtual alphabet soup of other qualifications; he’s currently a professor at Laval, but in a past incarnation, he worked in the United States, and was part of an expert panel on energy. At the time, he recalls, his colleagues – of the nuclear physicist variety – were not overly impressed with Canada’s reactors — too much tubing, too unstable. Have they been informed that Canada’s back? Now might not be the ideal time to do it, but let’s put it on the to-do list, because I don’t relish the thought of all those nuclear physicists laughing at us behind our back. Or worse yet, to our face.

Anyway, Duguay is giving a highly technical explanation of the Maple reactors — I can’t tell whether he’s pro or con — and promptly discredits himself entirely as far as the government members are concerned by proclaiming himself a “fan” of Linda Keen.

He then plunges ahead to contradict West, noting that AECL vp Bill Pilklington — liveblogged by AECL last week — admitted that the Maple reactors were never able to produce isotopes, and very likely never will.

Engineer fight! Engineer fight!

3:45:32 PM
Duguay concludes by coming out in cautious favour of the Triumf proposal — no, I don’t know what that is — and the last speaker takes over: John Waddington, who says that the Maple reactors *could* be restarted — in principle, that is — but it would require many steps, and a lot of money.

Wait wait wait. Are we seriously considering restarting a reactor that seems to be most often described by terms such as “unpredictable” and “more reactive than expected”? Let’s — think about that very, very carefully, shall we?

3:49:15 PM
“Discrepency” — another word that does not fill ITQ’s heart with joy when used in the context of discussion of a nuclear reactor. Apparently, we still don’t know what *caused* this “discrepency” in the operation of the Maples; Waddington doesn’t completely agree with Duguay that it couldn’t switch to a smaller positive coefficient, which would apparently make it less likely to have a catastrophic accident, and – did he just mention Chernobyl?

SIGNS THAT MDS NORDION’S PITCH TO REOPEN THE MAPLES COULD BE GOING BETTER: Journalists muttering to each other over the correct spelling of Chernobyl. (Thanks to Colleague GG.)

Also: When the liveblogger can’t figure out if the witness is describing the behaviour of this particular model of reactor as “peaky” or “piquey”. Neither, as far as she can tell, is particularly comforting.

3:55:30 PM
Waddington notes that there is, in fact, a clash between the risk of running out of isotopes, and the risk of restarting one or both of those seemingly mercurial Maple reactors — and he admits that Parliament may eventually have to make a choice, as it did in December 2007. He does, however, believe that the Chalk River reactor *will* eventually go back online, which is the only bit of good news we’ve heard so far this afternoon.

3:57:37 PM
And – question time! Geoff Regan gives West an opening to respond to Waddington on why the Maple project was cancelled; West – hey, has anyone else noticed that a surprisingly large percentage of witnesses on nuclear issues have Australian or New Zealand accents? Sorry, got distracted for a minute there; anyway, West admits that he doesn’t have “all the answers” – adding quickly that AECL doesn’t, either – and quotes from an independent report published earlier this year, which stated that the AECL could partner with another company to fix them up.

4:02:04 PM
Regan turns to Waddington, and asks him what *he* thinks of the notion – seemingly put forward by the prime minister yesterday – that Canada will eventually get out of the isotope business; does the witness think we should stick it out? Waddington – who has a sort of charming impartiality to him, particularly when compared against witnesses with a direct interest in the controversy over the Maples – says he’d be “very sorry” to see Maple get out of the isotope business, although he stresses the need to balance the various resources.

4:04:14 PM
Navdeep Bains gets West to give us a hard number, as far as the current shortfall in the isotope supply: With Chalk River temporarily out of commission, the worldwide supply is down by 30%.

4:05:43 PM
Over to the Bloc Quebecois, and Paul Brunelle, who wonders whether the whole Maple resurrection proposal is just a money pit, and whether it would put public safety at risk, even if they *could* be restarted. Finally, did the Maples actually produce isotopes, as MDS Nordion contends — or not? West hands the floor over to his vicepresident, Jill Chitra, explains that, during preliminary tests, the Maples did indeed produce a – something or other, that, if processed, would make medical isotopes. That sounds like a pretty definitive claim.

4:11:20 PM Disturbing mixed metaphor of the day, courtesy of Duguay: “A nuclear reactor is a minefield.” In that case, let’s *definitely* not go poking around in them willynilly. Anyway, West damns – or at least darns – with faint praise another alternative source of isotopes — fission, this time – and the chair tries to make Waddington contradict the claim that the Maples *did* produce isotopes, and – you know, watching politicians and scientists interact is absolutely *fascinating*. It really is like the entire meeting is taking place in a netherworld between alternate universes.

Anyway, Waddington also stresses that the Maple reactors — or at least that particular model of reactor — are, in fact, safe as houses; he’d cheerfully have one in his backyard.

4:16:17 PM
In response to a question from the NDP MP subbing for Nathan Cullen, West tells the committee that Canada can provide up to 70% of the total isotope supply, although this isn’t always the case, since reactors go in and out of production; even so, the shortage will not be redressed by ramping-up of production in other countries. Oh, and in North America, it’s probably closer to 50% than 30%.

4:18:19 PM
Where do we go from here, wonders the NDP MP. Fix the NRU, Waddington cheerfully recommends — that’s the key. Duguay suggests that it would be a “blow” to Canada’s reputation, not to mention future scientific development, to just go out of the isotope business; he’d like to see NRU back online, but also hopes that other options – like fission and accelerators – will be explored as well. Meanwhile, West thinks the most important step would be — oh, come on, you know this one: Restart the Maple reactors.

4:21:16 PM
Over to the government side of the table, and the parliamentary secretary — David Anderson — snits over how “disappointed” he is in what he’s heard today — not at the rather bleak revelations on the state of the Canadian isotope supply, mind you, but West’s comments on the Maples, in the absence of any discussion of his financial stake in the project.

Really, isn’t this edging dangerously close to the issue currently under litigation? I’m surprised the chair doesn’t warn both sides to be careful. Anyway, Anderson accuses West of using the shutdown as an “excuse” to blame AECL, and orders him to withdraw his statement if he can’t back it up.

West holds firm, though – he isn’t withdrawing anything, and Anderson continues to hector him until his time runs out.

4:26:37 PM
West reminds the committee that one Maple reactor can produce *all* of the world’s isotope needs — so why not restart one, and run it at half capacity? This sends Anderson into even more of a tizzy; he has news clippings and other anti-Maple material with which to confront the witness, and he’s not going to back down.

Unfortunately, on that note, the chair interrupts — time’s up for this portion of the meeting, which means ITQ is being ejected from the room along with everyone else, since they’re now going in camera for the rest of the afternoon. It looks like the witnesses are going to scrum outside, though — I’ll keep an ear peeled, and update this liveblog with any new developments, but otherwise, she’s going to sign off for the moment.