Chalk River nuclear reactor safe, health minister says

Federal Health Minister Tony Clement is dismissing criticism of the Conservative government's handling of the medical isotope crisis, insisting that he and his colleagues acted swiftly.

The federal health minister on Wednesday worked to deflectcharges that the Tory government mishandled the isotope crisis and assuage public concerns about the safety of the Chalk River, Ont., nuclearfacility.

Health Minister Tony Clement takes questions during a news conference at the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited plant in Chalk River on Wednesday. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Tony Clement told reportersduring avisit to the nuclear reactor Wednesday that it doesn't matter who is to blame for the reactor shutdown, which led to an international shortage of theisotopes needed for medical tests.

"I don't want to get into 'he said, she said.' I don't think that's what Canadians want to hear about," Clement told reporters."What they want to know is, is this reactor safe, and the answer is yes."

The Chalk River facility produces two-thirds of the world's radioisotopes — nuclear material essential for medical imaging and diagnostic scans for fractures, cancers and heart conditions.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) ordered the reactor to be shut down on Nov. 18 due to safety concerns, causing worldwides shortages of medical isotopes.

The crisis prompted the government to step in with emergency legislation to get the reactor running again as soon as possible. The Chalk Riverreactor restarted on Dec. 16, and a fresh supply of medical isotopes was expected to be ready for distribution this week.

Critics accused the Tories of letting the facility, which is operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.,run without regulation when they went against the safety commission's decision.

Dave Torgerson, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s president of research and technology, said the reactor was, and is, safe to operate.

"Safety is the word. We have operated safely in the past, we are operating safely now and we will operate safely in the future. No compromise," he said.

Dion calls for Natural Resources minister's resignation

However, Clement's tour came on the heels of harsh words from the Tory-appointed ex-chairman ofAECL, Michael Burns, who recently stepped down from his post.

In the Globe and Mail, Burns called the government's handling of his resignation "a clumsy piece of political opportunism," and suggested it tried to make hima fall guy.

Clement told reporters he and natural resources minister Gary Lunn moved swiftly after they learned the Chalk River reactor had been shut down for safety violations.

However, he dodged questions regardingexactly when the goverment learned of problems at the facility or the looming isotope shortage.

Clementsaid the government is conducting a thorough review of the AECL to prevent the crisis from recurring, and suggested someone else was to blame.

"The prime minister was quite serious when he said we want to get to the bottom of this and we will get to the bottom of this," he said.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, however, pointed the finger back at Clement and called for Lunn's dismissal.

"If Mr. Burns is right, Mr. Clement and Mr. Lunn should have been aware of what was happening.… If it's true what Mr. Burns has said, I ask the prime minister to fire this minister right away because it's too serious."

With files from the Canadian Press