December 11, 2007 / 8:09 PM / 10 years ago

Harper lashes regulator over isotope shortfall

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands to speak in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 10, 2007. Harper lashed out at the country's nuclear regulator on Tuesday for refusing to allow the reopening of a reactor that makes crucial radioisotopes for cancer tests. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper lashed out at the country’s nuclear regulator on Tuesday for refusing to allow the reopening of a reactor that makes crucial radioisotopes for cancer tests.

He also blasted the official opposition Liberals, who are for the time being blocking a government bid to overrule the regulator and allow the reactor to reopen for 120 days.

The Chalk River reactor -- which supplies more than two-thirds of the world’s radioisotopes -- was shut down in November. The operator, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, says it will not be back to full output until early to mid-January.

AECL, a government-owned company, originally expected the reactor to be back at normal production by mid-December.

The minority Conservative government -- which says the reactor can be safely reopened for a short period -- is under growing pressure to solve the problem but the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says the reactor will stay closed until a raft of safety issues are resolved.

“There will be no nuclear accident but what there will be is a growing crisis in the medical system here in Canada and around the world,” an infuriated Harper told Parliament, pointing out that commission head Linda Keen had been named by the previous Liberal government.

Harper’s comments were a clear sign he has lost confidence in Keen. A senior government official said her position was becoming increasingly difficult.

A spokesman for the commission declined to comment.

Chalk River produces medical isotopes for Canadian health care company MDS Inc and its MDS Nordion division, which is responsible for about 50 percent of world supply.

When injected into the body, the isotopes give off radiation that can be seen by a camera to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions.

The Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine says about 50,000 Canadians and 160,000 Americans would have their tests postponed for each month the reactor remains shut down.

The government is trying to push through legislation to temporarily sideline the safety commission and allow the reactor to reopen for 120 days.

To do so, it needs quick agreement from all parties but the Liberals said the move is irresponsible.

“Why does the government believe that AECL -- which is in flagrant violation of its license -- is competent to decide whether the reactor is safe to operate?” asked Deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

“Since when is the prime minister of Canada an expert on nuclear safety?” he added to laughter.

Ignatieff later told reporters that before the Liberals agreed to the legislation they wanted parliamentary hearings to question AECL, the safety commission and ministers on whether reopening the reactor was safe.

“We are not saying we’re going to vote against the legislation but we’ve got to do our jobs. Canadians want us to make sure that if we restart (the reactor) to get those isotopes delivered, we’re doing so in a situation of safety,” Ignatieff said.

The other two opposition parties said in principle they backed the proposed legislation.

The Conservatives accuse the Liberals of trying to protect Keen, who they say has close connections to senior Liberal legislator and former government minister Ralph Goodale.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway

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