Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Isotope Crisis: Manufactured and Avoidable

Whooee! Well friends an' foes, I just left a bigass comment over to The Progressive Right and I'm recyclin' that comment here. Jim was talkin' about Presto Manning and how he's pushin' fer some new Ministry of Science and Technology, or some such thing. Manning says the new bureaucracy could do things like develop replacement reactors for the aging Chalk River NRU.

So, Manning thinks we need a brand new bureaucracy to develop new research reactors? We're already building the Maple 1 and Maple 2. Those new research reactors were scheduled to replace the aging Chalk River plant in 2000. They are 8 years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. More bureaucracy will fix that? I ain't bettin' on it.

The latest chapter to the AECL saga is that Mr. Burns was selected on purely partisan grounds after two headhunting studies recommended a qualified, experienced individual for the job. Just like Harper said, the problem is with political hacks being appointed to jobs for which they are unqualified.

Tony Clement is now saying there are management problems at AECL. He's making it sound like Burns had to go. Two days ago, the spin was that Burns' hasty departure had nothing to do with the manufactured isotope shortage. Yesterday, a different story. Tomorrow? Wait for the next spin cycle. The $31 million dollar polls aren't in yet.
“I think it's fair to say it confirmed our impression that there has to be new management, there has to be better management, at AECL,” Mr. Clement said.
Was that the same impression they had in 2006 (edited from "2005" by JB per correction from LKO - see comments) when they paid for a headhunter and then chose a party hack instead of the recommended hire?

The biggest part of this whole scandal is the fact that the shortage and ensuing crisis were avoidable
, even at almost the last minute.

MDS is the profitable private company that distributes AECL's isotopes. On Nov 30, MDS issued a press release advising investors that the company was facing a supply problem and shortages may develop. Such reporting is required for publicly traded companies when a known issue may affect stock price.

Alternate suppliers, particularly a Holland-based reactor, were already gearing up their production schedules to meet the demand when NRU could not. A similar outsourcing program was used in 1998 when a labour dispute shut down Chalk River.

Procedures for dealing with future shortages were implemented after the 1998 strike. Even during that strike, though, they managed to keep isotopes available.

This time, they let the crisis develop. Lives were put at risk. A full-blown crisis was manufactured and Harper, et al, saw no other option than to overrule CNSC and restart NRU. There were other options but they were apparently unknown to parliament.

If MDS had outsourced, no crisis would have developed. If MDS had outsourced, MDS's stock price would be negatively affected. Outsourcing from suppliers who are working overtime to meet demand is expensive. MDS's customers are mainly in North America. Flying isotopes from Holland or South Africa is expensive. Transportation costs would have would cut further into MDS's profits.

MDS played its cards skillfully. They created a shortage. They failed to notify all the affected parties. They failed to procure available alternative isotopes. They put thousands of lives at risk. They got Parliament to restore their source of profitable isotopes.

Harper's disdain for crown corporations is well known and his years at NCC document his anti-crowncorp ideology. Placing an unqualified party fundraiser in charge of a multi-billion dollar nuclear industry giant was tantamount to sabotage. Now, CPoC strategists like Norquay are popping up and saying we need to rid ourselves of this troublesome AECL.

Who benefits from a discredited safety board and a devalued AECL? G.E. for one. They are front runners in the bid to purchase AECL from the taxpayers of Canada.

20 years from now, will we be seeing some HoC ethics committee grilling Harper about his connection to an avoidable isotope shortage that threatened thousands of lives?

UPDATE: A commenter at the Globe & Mail found this file:

It outlines how a shortage is to be dealt with and names a Belgian supplier as the alternative source for isotopes.
'IRE and Nordion have signed a mutual Mo-99 backup agreement to avoid a complete shortage of Mo-99 in case of an unscheduled shutdown of the Canadian NRU reactor.'
Nordion is MDS Nordion,


Other bloggers are posting on this:


Anonymous said...

But if the government admitted that there was another supplier gearing up to deal with the shortage they wouldn't have had the opportunity to over ride common sense safety regulations, they would have completely missed the opportunity to spout (once again) "we're getting it done", and the CPoC itself wouldn't have had an excuse to put another Photoshop'd picture of Dion on their website.

What sort of accountable and responsible government would they be if they passed up on those important national opportunities?

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Y,know, SL, I'm starin' to think this goes way deeper than mere political one-upsmanship. The impending sale of AECL puts this into Airbus -type territory. Millions are being spent by AECL on Maple 1 & 2 as well as on other CANDU development. Ontario has earmarked $40 billion for new nukes and AECL is the favoured supplier -- so long as they remain a crown corp. If we sell, Ontario can buy from Westinghouse or GE with political impunity.

There are billions in reactor sales at stake. There is the sale of a multi-billion dollar public asset at stake. Oh yeah... there's a little thing called public safety at stake, too.

This is gettin' really stinky. Keep sniffin'.


Lord Kitchener's Own said...

Just for clarity's sake, this quote "Was that the same impression they had in 2005 when they paid for a headhunter and then chose a party hack instead of the recommended hire?" should read 2006, not 2005.

There was indeed an independent head-hunting panel setup in 2005 (by Paul Martin) which concluded that then acting AECL Chair Jean-Pierre Soublière should be appointed as Chair on a permanently. However with the 2006 election it never happened. So then, in 2006, not wanting to take the advise of the first independent panel (and fair enough, I guess) the Tories hired a SECOND independent panel, which recommended that the post should go to... acting Chair Jean-Pierre Soublière.

It was only then, after TWO independent panels had recommended Jean-Pierre Soublière for the job that the Tories tapped (former Canadian Alliance fundraiser) Mr. Burns.

JimBobby said...

Right you are, LKO. Thanks for that. They decided to pay for the same headhunting job twice. What do they call it when you keep repeating the same process expecting a different outcome?

They way I see this ending up: Thousands of lives put at stake for the sake of MDS's bottom line. Harper acts as an agent for MDS, in spite of public safety concerns. There is a scandal here but it might be decades before we know the extent of it. There is the multi-billion dollars sale of AECL overshadowing all aspects of this crisis/fiasco.


Lord Kitchener's Own said...

Also interesting is why, given that this was clearly a manufactured crisis that actually didn't have major health implications and could have been completely fixed in less than two weeks did Parliament give unanimous consent to allow the reactor to run for 120 days without proper safety features?

The answer? (No surprise)

Christmas break.

Jim (Progressive Right) said...

Posts like these make me realize I don't know a damn thing about what's going on.

JimBobby said...

Don't feel bad, JimmyBoy. The whole nuke industry is built on secrecy and behind-the-scenes backroom deals.

How does an unprofitable industry stay afloat for 60 years? Though massive government subsidies.

How does a failed industry continue to get billions in government subsidies? Not by coming clean about all of its shortcomings.

I'm still waiting for the MSM to grasp the significance of the avoidability of the "crisis." Then, we may get a better glimpse into Harper's motivation and role in selling the restart as the only solution.


Space Fission said...

Hundreds of thousands of medical patients made uncomfortable, tens of millions of dollars in costs, and losses, and what it comes down to is a battle of egos heedless to any sense of accountability to the public. Ms. Keen is faulted for failing to consult outside her narrow regulatory world view when facing a global medical emergency. Mr. Burns gets low marks for management and an apparent inability to see this freight train coming down the track in broad daylight.