Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dear PMSH: It's About Public Safety

Stephen Harper has just demonstrated once again the fundamental contempt that he has for Canadians and our well being.

In the process of pushing through legislation to override the CNSC's shutdown of a Chalk River reactor, he's trying to make it a matter of partisan politics.

I can certainly assure the House that when this is all behind us, the government will carefully examine the role of all actors in this incident and make sure that accountability is appropriately restored," Mr. Harper said in the House of Commons.

He blames Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that owns the reactor in Chalk River, Ont., and the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, whom he accuses of partisan intransigence, for the fact that the reactor has not operated since Nov. 18. And the nuclear regulator is feeling the repercussions.

Now, I agree that the output of this reactor is vital to the health and well being of a lot of people. However, Stephen Harper is not an engineer, and obviously has only a limited appreciation of the implications of why the reactor was ordered shut down.

When the reactor's operating license was renewed a decade or so back, the CNSC ordered that a series of safety systems (cooling pumps in particular), be wired into a backup power source. A decade later, that work has not yet been done.

While the people that design reactors design in multiple layers of "failsafe" in the designs, we quite often identify new modes of failure and improvements that can be made to those mechanisms. Backup power and other forms of redundancy are common aspects of critical systems design today. These "no-single point of failure" designs are part of the thin line that protects the public from cascading failures. (Anybody else remembering Chernobyl?)

Nuclear reactors are in a class of human invention that I would politely call nominally safe. That is to say that the basic designs we use today (at least in Canada) are relatively sound and failsafe. However, equipment ages, it becomes prone to modes of failure not reflected in its design. Retrofitting additional safety mechanisms is a common and required activity.

The failure of AECL to implement mandated safety changes over a decade is disastrous to Canadians - especially those who live in the vicinity of Chalk River. This particular situation actually is a double jeopardy problem, because shutting down the reactor also inhibits a critical source of supply used for some key medical specialties.

Restarting the reactor is appropriate. However, AECL must be held to implementing mandatory upgrades.

Harper's error is in attempting to turn it into a matter of partisan squabbling - it shows us once again that Harper governs not on the interest Canadians, but instead on the basis of his own sense of when he can "score a political point".

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