Like I sed a coupla weeks ago: crisis, schmisis.
Opposition accuses Tories of manufacturing isotope crisis
January 28, 2008 - 5:15 pm
By: Joan Bryden, THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA - Opposition parties are accusing the Harper government of manufacturing last month's medical isotope crisis.
The parties levelled the accusation Monday based on a report that the government did not speak to alternative European suppliers of isotopes until Dec. 10 - 19 days after the research reactor at Chalk River, Ont., was shut down.
Even then, according to a Montreal newspaper, the government advised officials at three European reactors that they didn't need to increase their isotope production because the shutdown at Chalk River would be remedied shortly.
The following day, the government introduced emergency legislation to override the safety objections of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
Health Minister Tony Clement insists the report is "completely untrue."
The Chalk River facility, owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., produces more than half the world's supply of isotopes, used to diagnose and treat cancer and heart ailments.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers have insisted that drastic action was necessary to restart the reactor because lives were at stake. And from the outset they've blamed Linda Keen, head of the nuclear regulatory commission, for the crisis.
The government fired Keen two weeks ago.
Opposition MPs pounced on the newspaper's report to charge that the government is either incompetent or deliberately manufactured the crisis.
Clement told the House of Commons that the government "did scour the world for replacement isotopes" as soon as it was became aware that the Chalk River shutdown would be prolonged and was creating a critical shortage.
For his part, Harper reminded a news conference that the Chalk River reactor is the world's foremost supplier of isotopes and he suggested European reactors wouldn't have been able to pick up the slack.
"Alternatives elsewhere are very limited and they're short-term ones."
But New Democrat MP Catherine Bell said her own research is consistent with the newspaper's findings. She said she found European isotope suppliers that were ready and willing to step into the breach.
Moreover, she said, experts told her "there was a shortage but it was not a life and death shortage."
All of which raises the question: "Was this a manufactured crisis?"
Bell said it appears the government wanted to get rid of Keen. It may also have been trying to protect "the financial position" of MDS Nordion, the private company that supplies the isotopes produced at Chalk River.
"Their bottom line had to be protected as well. If we have to buy these isotopes from somewhere else, then it affects them."
Green party Leader Elizabeth May said she suspects AECL and MDS Nordion kept mum for as long as possible about the extended shutdown because they didn't want to "spook" clients about how insecure the supply of isotopes is from the 50-year-old Chalk River reactor.
"They gambled and they won. They gambled that they could basically play chicken with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and that the Harper government would come in on their side and force the reactor to reopen," May said.
She added that AECL and Nordion wanted to "hobble" the nuclear watchdog - and Keen in particular - because it is insisting that any new reactors must meet more onerous international safety standards.
Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn reiterated the government's contention that Keen was fired because she unnecessarily refused to bend on her safety concerns and "was willing to put the lives of thousands of Canadians in jeopardy."
Keen will get a chance to tell her side of the story Tuesday before the natural resources committee. She was to have testified two weeks ago but was fired the night before and cancelled her appearance.