January 17, 2008 / 12:40 AM / 10 years ago

Canada sacks nuclear watchdog over reactor closure

<p>Canada's Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn (C) waits to testify before the Commons natural resources committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 16, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government fired the country’s top nuclear watchdog over how she handled the closure of a reactor that makes medical radioisotopes and said on Wednesday her conduct could have cost people their lives.

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission President Linda Keen lost her job late on Tuesday for refusing to allow a 50-year-old reactor at the Chalk River facility in Ontario to reopen after a maintenance shutdown in November.

The reactor makes more than two-thirds of the global supply of medical isotopes. The isotopes, when injected into the body, give off radiation that can be seen by a camera to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions.

Last month, as hospitals began complaining about widespread shortages, the Conservative government overruled Keen by forcing legislation through Parliament to allow the reactor to be restarted for 120 days.

“Clearly, had we not acted, there is no question in my mind that people would die,” Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn told a parliamentary committee investigating the matter.

Lunn, who announced Keen’s dismissal in a statement released at 11:46 pm on Tuesday, told legislators that the way she had handled the shutdown “does not meet the very high standard of conduct the government and Canadians expect from public officeholders.”

He added: “She has lost the confidence of the government.”

Keen’s dismissal will put more pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper, already under fire from opposition legislators and the media for his handling of the affair.

Meanwhile, Omar Alghabra of the Liberals accused Lunn of incompetence and said he had had no right to intervene in the workings of a supposedly independent safety commission.

“Today is a really sad day. We often hear of incidents like (this) in countries abroad where there are dictatorships -- firing independent judges ... at their whim -- but I never expected to see that day happen here in Canada,” he told reporters.

Keen -- who said the push to reopen the reactor was too risky because some safety back-up systems were not working -- had been due to testify on Wednesday but changed her mind.

The reactor is operated by Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., the government owned nuclear technology company. AECL’s chief quit last month.

Last week, a report by the federal auditor-general said AECL was falling short on plans to replace the aging reactor.

Opposition critics are also unhappy Harper stressed that Keen had been appointed by the former Liberal government.

“I think Canadians are able to understand that something stinks here,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who demanded an inquiry into AECL.

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

(Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa and Scott Anderson in Toronto)

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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