Canada sets bad example with Chalk River reactor: British magazine, expert

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Canada's decision to restart the nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont., has prompted stinging criticism in Britain that Ottawa is setting a poor example for other countries.

The British magazine "New Scientist" says Canada is "sending out a dangerous message over nuclear safeguards."

And a nuclear expert says countries like Iran may argue they should be allowed to ignore nuclear safety rules now that Canada has done so.

But Canada is not without supporters abroad.

A former chief of nuclear safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency says the Canadian government and the nuclear safety agency have made the necessary decisions over the Chalk River facility and have done so transparently.

In its Jan. 26 edition, the "New Scientist" published a lead editorial condemning Canada's handling of the Chalk River affair, calling it "bizarre."

"Either your priority is to ensure people are protected from radiation, or you are responsible for what the reactor produces."

"A watchdog cannot do both. The Canadian government needs to sort out this mess quickly, and not just because the safety of its population is at stake," the magazine said.

"The world is watching because Atomic Energy of Canada Limited is also a producer and exporter of nuclear technology. Customers for its CANDU heavy water reactor include South Korea, China, India, Argentina, Romania and Pakistan. Canada is sending a dangerous message to these countries when it is prepared to undermine its own watchdog and compromise the protection of its workers and the public in order to keep one of its reactors open."

The Chalk River plant's closure in November led to a critical shortage of isotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and heart ailments. Parliament voted to override the safety regulator's objections and the reactor was restarted Dec. 16.

Pointed criticism of the decision came from John Large, a nuclear expert and consultant in Britain who is acting for Allianz Insurance Co. in a court dispute over the Maple 1 and Maple 2 reactors that have been delayed for years as possible replacements for the 50-year-old Chalk River facility.

"It's outrageous," Large said in an interview.

"The Canadian government can now put much of North America at risk. If they can do this for a small research reactor, they can do it for a large power reactor."

"Countries like Iran will be starting up their new reactor and one of the requirements of the U.S. and the IAEA was that the fuel would be safeguarded. Now you have a situation with Iran being set on a standard the Canadians have scrapped."

"Iran will say, 'Why can't we do that?' It's an incredibly bad model."

Large said the IAEA, as a global nuclear safety watchdog, should inspect Chalk River. The IAEA in Vienna refused to comment.

But Ken Brockman, a former director of nuclear installation safety at the IAEA, said the Canadian government had to balance the immediate health needs of its citizens against a potential risk from safety flaws at Chalk River.

Now an independent nuclear safety consultant, Brockman said all the decisions had been made transparently.

"If something like this had gone on behind closed doors, without public review, then you have a significant problem."

"I think the regulatory body made the decision they needed to make. But I understand why the politicians made their decision."

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