Taxpayers will be on hook for liabilities and toxic assets.
by Ish Theilheimer
OTTAWA, June 1, 2009, PublicValues.ca, with YouTube videos — The Harper government has announced its intention to sell of the most profitable and successful parts of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) at "fire sale" prices while retaining control of the Crown corporation's toxic assets and liabilities.
The government plans to divide the company in two. Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory, which currently employs 2,900 people, will be managed privately with no requirement that it continue manufacturing medical isotopes at the site. Currently, isotope production has stopped due to repeated problems at the plant.
Reporters and critics questioned the timing of the announcement, amidst alarm over the sudden cut-off of isotope production. In December, 2007, when the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission ordered the Chalk River reactor that produces the isotopes be shut down for repairs, the government recalled Parliament, citing the life-and-death nature of the situation. Stephen Harper even fried the Commission's chair, Linda Keen, over this.
On Thursday, at the privatization announcement, NDP natural resources critic Nathan Cullen pointed to the government's efforts to pass legislation shielding the nuclear industry from liability in case of accidents as proof of its intention to sell off the industry. He said it is poor management to sell off the company's best assets and proprietary research in a poor market while keeping the most risky assets in the public domain.
"They've just had a budget where we've seen a bunch of sales of Crown assets they weren't going to name. Now we're seeing what's going to be sold off. And to sell it off when prices are incredibly low is not sound fiscal management. Mr Flaherty's credibility with Canadians for managing the economy through this recession is out the window, and the growing concern is 'What next? What else is up for sale?'"
He said Canadian taxpayers will be "on the hook for the majority of costs in the event of a nuclear accident," because of proposed legislation "to limit liability in Canada in the event of a nuclear accident." In the US, he said, nuclear companies have to pay into a $10 billion pool for liabilities.
Natural resources minister Lisa Raitt said the newly-privatized company would be regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, "which does have an independent view of the entire nuclear industry in Canada and will be managing it regardless of the restructuring here."
When asked by Straight Goods News "Can you call it independent when you're able to politically fire and hire chairs of the Commission, as happened in the case of Linda Keen?," Raitt said, "The CNSC absolutely has its own mandate and it continues to regulate the industry for its health, safety and security of Canadians."
Natural resources minister Lisa Raitt:(with apologies for poor sound quality)
The political meddling that kept the old reactor going, and periodically leaking heavy water, since the crisis, concerned reporters and critics. "Sixteen months ago, your government took pretty extraordinary steps, fired the nuclear safety regulator and ordered the startup of the NRU because, in the words of your government, 'people will die'," said Greg Weston of Sun Media. "Now we have a situation where the NRU is going to be shut down for months. Some are saying it will never come back online and we can't even find your Health Minister. What has changed? And was the government exaggerating the last time or does it just not care this time?"
Raitt downplayed the danger of the current isotope shortage. She was repeatedly grilled over apparent lack of government action to secure isotope supply in the 18 months since the 2007 crisis.
"What have they been doing, what have they been thinking?" asked Liberal natural resources critic David McGuinty. "There have been three unscheduled shutdowns. There have been four heavy water leaks, contained or otherwise, and we have no final knowledge of what the status of those containments are. We don't know if there are other leaks."
Liberal natural resources critic David McGuinty:(with apologies for poor sound quality)
Raitt dodged repeated questions about whether lives are in danger now, saying repeatedly the government plans to hire outside experts to help find answers both to the isotope and privatization questions, but not naming any of the experts she plans to hire.
Ish Theilheimer has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since founding it in September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca.