Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Minister Lunn, Mr. Harper, May I Introduce Reality

The fallout of Harper's mishandling of the Chalk River situation is continuing to fester its way along.

Today, the Globe and Mail reports on some correspondence between Minister Lunn and Ms. Keen, head of the CNSC.

The letters are published here, with substantiating documentation.

Mr. Lunn's approach to things is typical of the HarperCon$ - bullying and thuggish. Ms. Keen replies with facts - both the laws governing her role, as well as the details of the Chalk River reactor's prolonged shutdown.

A more detailed analysis will follow - when I have time to make my way through the CNSC's rebuttal of the HarperCon$ allegations. I wanted to make the links to the letters available sooner rather than later.

[Update - Analysis]:
Commenter "BillBC" seems to take exception my characterization of Minister Lunn's behaviour as "Thuggish". Allow me to explain why this is my opinion.

First of all, the letter is little more than a notification of intent to terminate the recipient.

Consider the following paragraphs from the letter:

Under your leadership the Commission did not initiate the process to permit the return to operation of the NRU reactor, despite the issuance on December 10, 2007 of the Directive to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission Regarding the Health of Canadians. ...

These events have cast doubt on whether you possess the fundamental good judgement required by the incumbent of the office of President of the Commission, and whether you are duly executing the requirements of the office. Serious questions have arision about whether the Commission, under your leadership, could have dealt more appropriately with the risk management of the situation.

At first, this sounds like a "verbal spanking". However, we also know that when the issue was first raised, Harper immediately tried to turn it into a matter of partisan politics in the House of Commons.

Second, let us consider the Commission's receipt of the Government's directive:

The first time that I, or anyone at the CNSC became aware of the Directive, was when a copy of the Directive was sent to the CNSC on the morning of December 11, 2007. As you are well aware, the CNSC was not consulted about the Directive before it was drafted and tabled in the House of Commons.

C-38, in turn, was introduced in the House of Commons in the afternoon of December 11, 2007 - only hours after the Directive was tabled in the Hose of Commons by Minister Hearn. Indeed, notice of An Act to permit the resumption and continuation of the generation of the National Research Universal Reactor at Chalk River was included on the Order Paper before the Directive was sent to the CNSC. Clearly, the introduction of C-38 eclipsed the need for CNSC staff or Commission to have regard to the contents of the Directive in respect of that facility after C-38 was passed.

In my view, Mr. Lunn's immediate leap into threatening Ms. Keen's position is typical of the bullying and thuggish behaviours that we have seen the Harper Conservatives engage in ever since they came to office. To put it in simpler terms, when the employee appears to make a serious error, as the "boss", you damn well better make sure that you have the facts on the table and clear before you go into their office on a tirade about their performance.

In a situation where something as risk-laden as nuclear reactors are concerned, there are good reasons to exercise caution when operational conditions arise that result in compromised fail-safe systems.

There's an interesting fact lurking in the CNSC submission that is important too (and one that I hadn't caught in my initial assessment of the situation:

Upon discovering that the NRU reactor was operating outside its licensing framework, the decision to extend the shutown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River in November was made by AECL alone and was entirely voluntary. To be clear, the CNSC did not order or force AECL to shut down, or extend the shutdown, of the NRU reactor. As AECL confirmed in its letter of November 22, 2007, the decision was made by AECL's senior management and the Site Licence Holder.

This is an interesting, and important fact. It was the AECL that specifically made the decisions around shutdown and extending the shutdown.

There are a few notes relating to the engineering and safety principles involved that I think should be taken note of:

The NRU reactor's operating licence required both MHWP P-104 and P-105 to be connected to the Emergency Power Supply ("EPS"). The EPS delivers emergency backup power to the pumps to ensure that they can continue to force coolant into the reactor in the event of an external incident or power interruption. Given the design of the NRU reactor, the uninterrupted delivery of power to P-104 and P-105 is essential for its safe operation. The licence given by CNSC to AECL in 2006 was based, in part, on assurances from AECL that it had connected the pumps to the EPS.

We are talking about a fail-safe design principle here. Fail-sae design is a vital part of safety systems engineering - whether we are talking about reactors, pipelines or electrical networks, you design things so that the opportunity for a bad situation to get worse is minimized. There is one fundamental principle at play here - you don't play "fast and loose" with these matters. Period. The real question that should be getting addressed right now is not the role of CNSC, but rather why the AECL left this task undone in the months since the operating licence was issued in August, 2006.

Further reading of the CNSC President's letter and narrative makes it quite clear that due legal process to which the Commission is bound - by the very act(s) of Parliament that created the Commission and guide its activities.

On December 7, 2007, however, AECL informed me that it wished to pursue the one pump connection option and requested a reply on the process before December 11, 2007. As it is now known, the issuance of the Directive and the introduction of C-38 overtook this option. Following their letter of December 7, 2007, AECL was informed by the CNSC staff that a complete safety case was required to support the licence amendment application and that one had not yet been received.

Following the CNSC letter of December 10, 2007, with respect to the process, there was no specific request from AECL asking the Secretariat to schedule a hearing nor any indication of a completed safety case in support of an amendment application. ...

Sounds to me like due process - both from a legal/judicial perspective as well as from an engineering analysis perspective was being applied quite appropriately by the CNSC.

Meanwhile, we also find that Minister Lunn had been trying to get the CNSC to bend the very rules that are set out in the laws governing its function:

For example, in a telephone call from the Minister of Natural Resources on Saturday, December 8, 2007 to the President of the CNSC, the President was told that she needed to immediately convene a hearing by the Commission that afternoon in order to get the NRU back in operation. The President explained to the Minister that, for a variety of reasons, including the incomplete state of the request by AECL for permission to start the reactor with only one pump rather than two, it would not be possible for the Commission hear and decide the matter in the timframe demanded.

The Minister's message was clear though: he wanted the Commission to approve the startup of the reactor at the NRU with one pump rather than the two required by the licence held at the time by AECL, even though to do so would require a licence amendment; something that can only be dealt with - according to law - by the Commission after conducting an adjuticative process in which the relevant facts and law are considered. But given the Minister's comments, there was no doubt in the mind of the President that he was asking that the CNSC allow AECL permission to restart the NRU irrespective of what the Commission determined would be appropriate given the circumstances of the case. ....

If there's an issue here, it is the panic of the Conservatives who were starting to take some serious heat in the public arena over the issues. In some ways, this is a bit of a no-win situation for them. On one hand, if anything happens to the NRU reactor before the backup power is connected to those pumps, and we will have an all too graphic understanding of what happens when fail-safe designs are not fully implemented. Conversely, allowing the situation to drag on was clearly having serious consequences for health care - not just in Canada, but around the world.

Oddly, Bill C-38 may have been the most appropriate move to make, as it correctly overrode the CNSC by means of an act of Parliament rather than by demanding that the CNSC break the laws that govern it.

However, in their efforts to find someone else to blame, the actions of Harper and his ministers are serving to do little but inflame the situation. Harper's attempts to make this into a partisan matter to score political points is disappointing, as it continues to show us that Harper and his followers are still thinking as if they are opposition politicians - always looking for a way to "pin the blame" on their adversaries, rather than showing us actual leadership.


BillBC said...

I take it back. You aren't civil. "Thuggish" and "Con$" are slurs unworthy of serious comment.

Grog said...

You don't have to agree with me.

I happen to feel that this government is among the most secretive, dishonest governments that I have seen since Brian Mulroney was in office. (and there are many things about Chretien's that I don't like either)