Return to Chalk River: Liveblogging NatResources on AECL's isotope problem - Macleans.ca

Return to Chalk River: Liveblogging NatResources on AECL’s isotope problem

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I swear, it feels like we’ve done this before — only last time, didn’t we have a slightly shorter minister on the hot seat? Anyway, ITQ will be liveblogging this afternoon’s emergency hearing on that whole Chalk River don’t-call-it-a-meltdown, with special guest star Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, who will appear along with senior bureaucrats from her department – including the same deputy minister as last time, the formidable Cassie Doyle.

3:20:45 PM
Greetings, concerned citizens! Wow, it’s been quite a day on the liveblogging front — from Ottawa courthouse to a committee room, we cover the waterfront here at ITQ.
Anyway, I’m currently shamelessly copying out the witness’ names from their placards – we have Tom Wallace, Serge Dupont and Meena Ballantyne – because I forgot to bring a copy of the meeting notice. Unforgiveable, I know.

With that taken care of, ITQ has now installed myself in what she has christened Bloggers’ Corner, next to the talented Mr. Akin, who will be twittering throughout the meeting, so be sure to check out his feed too.

3:26:52 PM
And — it’s showtime! Wow, Leon Benoit is the chair? I — did not know that.

Anyway, he opens the meeting on a cheerful, if business-like note; he sends the “portable cameras” on their merry way, and then opens the floor for a bit of pre-witness housekeeping business, mostly involving whether or not the committee will stick around for an extra ten minutes after the witnesses have wrapped up so as to figure out where to go from here.

Geoff Regan, however, grumbles that he’d rather make sure that the minister is willing to come back *after* they’ve heard from other witnesses, so she can respond to what they have to say. There’s also some discussion of a field trip to Chalk River – oh! Take me! Take me! – but it sounds like they’re going to deal with most of those logistical details after the main event.

And with that, it’s over to the witnesses, who have an opening presentation — of course they do — that will probably take fifteen minutes or so. After that, it’s onto questions.

3:32:23 PM
Dupont – who is, I believe, from Health Canada – starts out by giving MPs a quick refresher course on the medical use of isotopes, which I’m going to spare you, for the most part, because I suspect most of is cribbed directly from the departmental background notes. If they say anything astonishing, I’ll definitely mention it.

3:34:41 PM The supply disruption right now is “of significant concern” to patients, Ballantyne acknowledges – yes, she’s taken over the floor – and there are alternatives in some cases, but in others – like paediatric bone cancer – the available supply is being targeted to critical procedures, as well as using lower doses, working weekends, and other measures.

3:40:05 PM

Since the presentation began, Cheryl Gallant has done the following: made a methodical, item by item inventory of her purse; poured water for herself; and finally produced what I think may have been this week’s Hill Times, which she perused for no more than a minute or two before realizing she should be paying attention to the witnesses, who, admittedly, aren’t telling the committee anything that someone who reads the newspaper doesn’t already know.

ITQ’s excuse for not following that much more closely than certain MPs is that she doesn’t have a copy of the slideshow.

3:42:46 PM
Isotopes *cannot be stockpiled*. They need to be used while fresh and full of radioactive goodness. Are we all clear on that? Good. See, we didn’t even *need* all those fancy charts and graphs that I can just make out by squinting over the nearest MP’s shoulder.

3:44:28 PM
So, did y’all hear that the NDP’s attempted private members’ bill on employment insurance was tossed out by the Speaker just after QP? I wonder what effect that’s going to have on the election speculation alert colour. I’d say we’re definitely at yellow, and heading for orange.

3:45:40 PM
‘We are all very keenly aware that the NRU is fifty years old,’ Dupont notes – but really, all the *other* isotope-producing reactors are of similar vintage, so it’s not like the Aging Sea Kings where Canada sticks out like a wizened old thumb. He keeps pointing out that the one in the Netherlands *also* keeps going wonky, although really, I’m not sure why that should provide any particular comfort. There *is* a relatively youthful reactor in Australia that has just begun producing isotopes, and another in Argentina that could supply “modest quantities” to the international market, as well as one in Arkansas and — wait, is he giving these in alphabetical order, or are they all located in places that start with the letter A?

3:51:45 PM
Does it feel like this has gone on longer than fifteen minutes to anyone else? Or have you all tuned out? Brad Trost looks like he’s pretty much heard enough, although he’s flipping through the deck like it’s one of those electronics wishlist magazines you only find on airplanes.

Shoutout to Budget 2008 – or was that 2009? – for giving AECL the money it needed to keep up with the rest of the world in isotope-producing world! That’s working well, isn’t it?

3:55:52 PM
ITQ would like to set the record straight: Cheryl Gallant was *not* reading the Hill Times, and was gracious enough to give ITQ a peek at her copy of the slideshow, for which we are very grateful. Hurray for interactive journalism!

3:56:42 PM
And — questions! First one, not surprisingly, is about the possibility of alternative sources; it turns out that Lanthias – which supplies 80% of the Canadian market – is now negotiating with South Africa, and the Dutch are “ramping up” their capacity by as much as 50%.

3:58:58 PM
Well, it turns out – as we learn from a question from Geoff Regan – that the Dutch reactor will actually be shut down for most of July, which is apparently normal – a planned outage, not like what happened with Chalk River – and necessary for the continuing operation of these sorts of reactors. Regan wonders whether we aren’t heading for a “rather dire situation” in July, given the lack of an ETA for the restart at NRU; Dupont acknowledges that Chalk River will be down for at least three months, and that there will be some periods of shortage in the future. It will come down to how the different schedules relate to each other, as well as the progress of work at Chalk River.

Finally, Regan questions the comments made by the Health Minister yesterday, when she suggested that thallium could be used in some cases, which – according to the doctors *he* talked to, is old technology, and doesn’t give nearly as much information about the patient. Ballantyne sort of agrees – it’s not perfect – but suggests that it is the best alternative available.

4:03:40 PM
And now, the Bloc Quebecois’ France Bonsant, who can’t quite get past the age of the various reactors, and Dupont points out that it really depends on the use. Bonsant notes that it seems as though we’re dependent on other countries to have the will to up their respective production, and Dupont doesn’t exactly disagree, although he seems to be hopeful that the ongoing negotiations will succeed. He also points to the need to look at alternatives – to isotopes, that is.

4:10:13 PM
Bonsant is still chipping away at Dupont over the uncertainty in the supply chain; he’s holding up fairly well, and has only had to defer to the minister – who isn’t here yet, but should be making an appearance soon – once.

4:11:38 PM
Nathan Cullen takes the flow, and challenges Dupont with a non-trivial trivia question: When the Chalk River reactor went down in 2007, how many of the other facilities out of commission? None, it turns out – yet, as Cullen remembers it, the minister of the day insisted that it was a crisis, and that Linda Keen had to be fired, and the reactor restarted immediately. This time, however, the reaction is markedly less apocolyptic, despite the fact that there are four other reactors down for the count.

He also wants to know the status of our thallium supply – actually on the shelves in hospitals – and Ballantyne, who seems to be choosing her words very carefully, suggests that as far as she knows, there isn’t a problem.

4:15:52 PM
Carolyn Bennett has just arrived on the scene; finally, the Liberals have both their health *and* natural resources ministers at the ready. (In fairness to the NDP, since they only have one seat on committee, they would have had to pick one of the two when they were figuring out who to send up against the minister.)

“When talking to cancer patients right now,” he tells Ballantyne, he has nothing reassuring to say to them in response to their concerns over the short- to medium-term supply of isotopes. She reminds him that it’s not like our isotope supply is going from 100% to 0%; besides, we’re much more prepared than we were in 2007.

4:21:24 PM And now, a word from The Government, with Brad Trost taking the lead slot as softball pitcher. What, he wonders, are we doing so very right this time around that *wasn’t* done in 2007? Lots of things, you’ll be relieved to know – contingency planning, rapid engagement with international producers, that sort of thing.

Gallant echoes – no, almost literally, a word for word repeat – her colleague’s question, and Ballantyne pipes up to add communications to the list – giving “virtually instantaneous notice” to provincial partners, as well as working closely with medical professors to make sure there were alternatives in place, should it be necessary.

4:25:28 PM
Okay, shouldn’t the minister be here by now? Is she running late? Or is she being scrummed outside?

4:27:26 PM
There she is — and since she arrived with an entourage of reporters, I suspect my last guess was the correct one. Ballantyne wraps up her final answer, and Benoit dismisses the witnesses with thanks – he also thanks Trost for his questions, which was sweet, if a tiny bit partisan – and the minister and her team take over the now abandoned witness table.

4:36:53 PM
And — here she goes, with an opening statement that could be titled “December 2007 and Now: How It’s Totally Different This Time. No, Really”. She begins, however, with a status update, of sorts – nothing new, really; it’ll be three months before Chalk River will be back in the isotope business. I have a sneaking suspicion that much of her speech is going to be oddly reminiscent of what we just heard from the last witnesses, but I’ll update you if she says something new.

4:39:51 PM
Yup, so far, nothing new, although what she said at the beginning about “better communication” between the government, the nuclear safety commission and AECL makes me wonder if she’s going to hint that Linda Keen exacerbated the chaos in 2007.

4:42:26 PM
Oh, remember the high level international working group on isotope supply? Well, they had their first meeting this morning – and guess who was picked to chair it? Canada, that’s whom! The country with the reactor that won’t be back online til September! Did anyone else *want* to be chair?

4:43:51 PM
Oh, I didn’t twig til now, but poor Serge Dupont has to stick around at the witness table for the full two hours.

Raitt, meanwhile, is giving us a recap of last week’s announcement of the expert review panel on isotope production, as well as the restructuring of AECL, which will strengthen the culture of growth and leadership within the Canadian nuclear energy, although it won’t “resolve issues” surrounding NRU, which are global in scope, and as such, require a global solution.

Finally, she points to the nuclear liability legislation that madew it through second reading yesterday. The chair, who seems to imagine himself as some sort of master of ceremonies, or official committee greeter, compliments the minister on her presentation before turning the floor over to Geoff Regan. He notes that the medical profession is referring to this as a “catastrophe”, but before getting into detail on that front, he wants to make sure the minister is willing to come back to committee at a future date, and she cautiously agrees, or at least doesn’t outright reject the possibility.

With that out of the way, Regan accuses her of being just the teensiest bit self-congratulatory in her statement, and wonders what the end result of all this alleged progress has actually been. She thanks him for the question, and reminds him that there was no reason to believe that the NRU wouldn’t be able to continue to produce isotopes — the December 2007 shutdown was, after all, part of normal maintenance — and – wait, wait, wait. Hang on a second here.

Didn’t Linda Keen warn the committee – and everyone else – that there *was* good reason to be worried? Raitt keeps reminding committee members that the emergency bill to restart the reactor was passed unanimously, but you know, that doesn’t actually make it a good idea. In fact, as I was musing earlier, if you manage to draft a bill or motion that garners immediate, all-party support of sufficient enthusiasm that it can be fast-tracked through the House, chances are you’ve written yourself one bad piece of legislation.

4:53:20 PM
Raitt doesn’t think it’s lost on *anyone* how important it is for AECL to perform this maintenance, but Regan wonders why the expert panel wasn’t appointed last year, if this is all going according to plan. He also wants to know when she’s going to get around to naming actual members to the panel, and the minister says she’s hoping to do so as soon as possible.

4:54:52 PM
Over to the Bloc, and Paule Brunelle, who confesses that there was something in the minister’s statement that ‘disturbed’ her: Did they decide to stop the reactor? And how long will it take to repair the “major technical” problem that is to blame? Brunelle suggests that this is actually crisis management — *efficient* crisis management, but still — and can’t help but point out that it still doesn’t produce any isotopes. “Why have you been so slow in reacting,” she wonders – and is that why the government is now considering privatization – because it has no idea what *else* to do?

Raitt insists that she didn’t know – nobody knew – that the reactor would go kerflooey — again, wasn’t that what Linda Keen was on about? — and reminds the committee that Canada is, in fact, chairing the high-level working group.

4:59:01 PM
Brunelle wonders if they happened to come up with any *solutions* during that high-level conference call, and – other than the previously noted discussions on maintenance schedules, increasing production and getting new reactors online, the answer would appear to be no. Does that mean the Maples are dead, as far as future isotope production? Sort of, yes, Raitt tells the committee –at the moment, the Maples have never produced, and are incapable of producing, a single isotope – no matter what MDS Nordion may say.

5:02:16 PM
Over to Nathan Cullen again, who, once again, reminds the minister of what happened in 2007 – the screaming, the yelling, the dire predictions from the minister that people would die – and challenges the minister to square that circle, as it were, given the relative serenity with which the current minister has reacted to the shutdown. Raitt takes issue with his claim that *no* reactors are producing isotopes at the moment — didn’t he pay attention to the presentation? — but Cullen sums up the Chalk River story thusly: “It worked well until it didn’t.” Early detection of cancer, he reminds the minister, is critically important, so why isn’t *this* a life and death situation? (Because they’ve already fired that diabolical cancer-patient-hating Linda Keen, silly.)

5:05:57 PM
When Cullen tries to get all cross-examinatory on the minister, Benoit chastises him for interrupting — for goodness sakes, let her answer the question is the upshot — but Cullen is undaunted: the government, he notes, has had eighteen months to come up with a solution, and now we’re right back in crisis mode.

“It seems irresponsible,” he concudes.

This leads to a testy exchange between himself and Raitt – she doesn’t think much of his assessment of the situation, and he doesn’t think much of her equanimity – and eventually, the chair shuts it down, noting that he gave Cullen an extra thirty seconds.

With that, it’s over to Team Government for the final round, and Trost – at least, I think it was Trost, to be honest, I sort of zoned out for a second there – wait, no, it’s apparently Mike Allen from New Brunswick. Anyway, he wonders if there was any contingency planning done by the *last* government – you know, the Liberal one(s) – for the possibility of the Maples turning out to be wildly expensive, radioactive paperweights, and the minister tells the committee that the problems would have been known as early as 2000. So what’s your excuse, Anne McLellan – or whoever was Minister of Natural Resources of the day? We’re waiting.

5:14:19 PM
Allen then tosses the minister an even softer, fluffier question – really, it’s more like a kitten than a softball – about how that nuclear liability bill will make companies *even more likely* to build reactors in Canada, what with being almost completely off the hook if a catastrophic meltdown ensues. Okay, her answer was a little less doomsdayish, but that’s the gist.

5:16:05 PM
Finally, Cheryl Gallant brings it on home with a question near and dear to her heart – what will last week’s announcement mean to the workers of Chalk River? It will, they and she will be relieved to hear, bolster the industry, and allow them to focus on the research and development — the *science* side — and take advantage of the entrepreneurial spirit that burns bright in the soul of every nuclear physicist. Also, something about the oil sands — apparently, Chalk River could “play a role” in extraction, or processing, or something oilsandy.

5:18:14 PM
Ooh! A second round — but at two minutes each, what do you want to bet most of the MPs are going to eat up their parties’ allotted time with pointless preambling?

Navdeep Bains wonders whether there are any plans to help the provinces out with additional costs as a result of the need to find alternative sources/material, and she tells him that’s being taken care of by her colleague at Health. Bains – who managed to keep his question succinct enough to squeeze in another one – asks something about whether *she* knew the reactor was heading for a shutdown, and the answer, eventually, is no.

5:21:05 PM
Back over to the government side, and Devinder Shorey wastes a good fifteen seconds telling the committee he’ll be splitting his time. Eventually, he asks if there are any firm commitments from her international counterparts to increase production, and she delivers pretty much exactly the same line as she did earlier about coordinating schedules, looking for alternatives, did she mention Canada is chairing the high level working group, and – time? Time!

5:24:04 PM
Over to Luc Malo – interrogate like the wind, little Bloquiste – who is also obsessed with the age of the reactors – wants the minister to admit that the current shortage is because the government was “too lax”. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t — we stepped up to the plate, she insists. Canada has shown leadership. Leadership! Did she mention we’re chairing the high-lev — oh, she did? Right, then.

5:27:08 PM
When Canada asks, other countries respond. That’s leadership.

5:27:26 PM
Hey, it’s David “No, Not The Former Environment Minister” Andrew, who admits that this will probably be “more of a statement” – well, points for honesty — and sniffles at the opposition’s unparalleled clarity in hindsight. Eventually, Cullen interrupts him with a point of order; he reminds the chair that in the past, he has told members to make the best use of their time when they are “graced” with the presence of a minister. Benoit doesn’t seem to recall that, and points out that it’s ultimately up to the member to decide how to use his time. Which he does, and delivers what I could swear is yet a third – and distinctly shorter – iteration of the same presentation we’ve heard from the bureaucrats *and* the minister. I could deliver it myself by now.

5:31:41 PM
And that’s it for the witnesses – and for ITQ, although I’ll stick around to see if any fireworks break out at the post-meeting.

5:33:22 PM
Or maybe I won’t — apparently, they *always* do committee business in camera, although I swear they didn’t mention that earlier today. There seems to be some dissent over whether I have to leave – not me personally, although I’m the only one still here – so I’ve left the room, but am hanging around outside on the off chance that it opens up. That, or I’ll try to find out what happened after the meeting adjourns. I’ll keep y’all posted either way!