Fallout from isotope crisis hits top regulator

16 January 2008

Linda Keen has been sacked as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), as the row over the NRU shutdown intensifies.

On 15 January the Canadian government removed Keen as president, citing a serious erosion of faith in her leadership. The government said Keen would remain as a full-time member of the CNSC. The move comes after a public exchange of critical letters between Keen and natural resources minister Gary Lunn.

Michael Binder, a career civil servant with a PhD in Physics and senior management experience, will take over as interim president until a permanent replacement is selected.

In December last year the CNSC forced the extended shutdown of the NRU isotope-production reactor, leading to a shortage of supplies for medicine. The government said: "The extended shutdown of the reactor was threatening to cause a national and international health crisis. The president was aware of the importance of maintaining Canada's and the world's supply of medical isotopes. However, given the growing crisis, she did not demonstrate the leadership expected of the president... to put the commission in a position to address the situation in a timely fashion."

Keen had insisted that owner-operator AECL complete safety upgrades on NRU, required to assure power supply to cooling water pumps in case of earthquake, before it could be restarted. She had said the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, under which the CNSC operates, required strict adherence to operating licence conditions under all circumstances.

The Canadian government said: "This approach failed to recognize the considerable powers of the commission to act on its own initiative to solve the emergency."

AECL evidently agree with the government. The company admits that the cooling pump power supply changes required by its licence had not been made in a timely fashion. However, AECL say that CNSC was aware of this for several months but chose to force a crisis.

According to reports in Canadian newspapers that have seen an AECL account of the events, such as the Vancouver Sun, the matter had been clearly stated in written correspondence several times before CNSC said it discovered the issue.

Keen is due to appear before the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology today to give evidence on the affair.