Risk of restarting nuclear reactor too high: Keen

Linda Keen, fired by the federal Conservatives as president of Canada's nuclear safety watchdog, said Tuesday the safety risk of restarting the Chalk River reactor was 1,000 times higher than accepted standards.

The woman who was fired by the federal Conservatives as president of Canada's nuclear safety watchdog said Tuesday the safety risk of resuming the Chalk River, Ont., reactor was 1,000 times higher than accepted international standards.

Linda Keen prepares to appear before the House of Commons natural resources committee on Parliament Hill on Tuesday. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Linda Keen, former president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), said there was a one in 1,000 chance of an accident occurring and she did not believe the medical isotope-producing nuclear reactor in Chalk River should have resumed operation.

In the case of a nuclear fuel failure, the international standard for acceptable risk is one in a million, Keen said.

"Some have suggested that the chance of a nuclear accident was low and that the reactor was safe enough. Well, with respect, safe enough is simply not good enough," said Keen, who spoke before a House of Commons natural resources committee.

"When it comes to nuclear facilities, ignoring safety requirements is simply not an option, not now, not ever."

She said she was acting according to the law when she refused to approve the restart of the reactor.

Safety, not isotopes, under CNSC's mandate: Keen

Two weeks ago, Keen was dismissed as head of the commission before she was set to appear before the committee to discuss the shutdown of the Chalk River facility. She subsequently backed out of her planned testimony.

The reactor, which produces two-thirds of the world's medical radioisotopes, was closed for scheduled maintenance in November but regulators found more problems than expected — including two water pumps that didn't have emergency backup power. Keen ordered the reactor to stay closed indefinitely until the operator, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., installed safety upgrades.

The prolonged shutdown created a worldwide shortage of isotopes necessary for medical diagnosis and treatment.

Keen said that under her mandate, public safety must come first and nowhere does it say she should consider the effect a shutdown would have on the production of isotopes.

"Under the law, the commission did not have the authority to take the issue of isotopes into consideration when making its decision," she said.

Keen said the government implicitly recognized this by enacting emergency legislation to suspend the commission's powers and get the reactor up and running.

"[This] would not have been necessary if the commission already had that responsibility," she said. "The fact is, it did not."

Parliament voted unanimously to override the safety regulator's objections and the reactor was restarted on Dec. 16.

Medical need outweighed safety concerns: Tories

Gary Lunn, the federal minister of natural resources who dismissed Keen, has already told the committee that she showed a "lack of leadership" and should have allowed the Chalk River reactor to be turned back on, despite the safety concerns, so it could start making isotopes again.

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn told the committee earlier in January that 'people invariably would have died' had the government not ordered production of medical isotopes to resume. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Conservative MP Brad Trost raised that issue during Tuesday's hearing, saying her mandate "does not specifically exclude being concerned about cancer patients and their treatments."

Trost said Keen also could have used her emergency powers, which he said allows the commission, in the case of an emergency, to make any order "that it considers necessary to protect the environment or the health and safety of persons."

Keen repeated, "This was not the mandate of the CNSC. It has been independently reviewed for seven years and that was not the mandate of the CNSC."

'We were being told what to do': Keen

Before Keen's appearance, Auditor General Sheila Fraser testified that Keen's firing clearly raised questions about the independence of regulatory bodies and how they are dealt with.

She said that at a minimum, there appears to be "a lack of clarity" around the issue.

During testimony, Ontario Liberal MP Lloyd St. Amand accused Lunn of interfering in an independent commission, and asked Keen about a call she received from the minister in early December about the incident.

"You were being told by the minister of natural resources what to do and how to do it," Armand said.

"There's absolutely no doubt in our mind that we were being told when to do it and what to do on that date, and that was my impression," Keen said.

Liberals want tribunal

When Lunn threatened to fire Keen in a letter, Keen responded in a letter of her own, challenging cabinet's assessment of her actions and demanding an independent review.

On Monday, the Liberals asked again that Stephen Harper's government appoint an independent, non-partisan tribunal to review Keen's dismissal.

Lunn has dismissed opposition calls for an inquiry, noting that Parliament unanimously passed emergency legislation in December to overturn her decision.

He also said all of the facts are now public and MPs already had an opportunity to question him at his previous appearance before the committee.

With files from the Canadian Press