Risk was too high, Canada ex-nuclear watchdog says

Tue Jan 29, 2008 3:13pm EST
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government ran a risk 1,000 times as great as world standards in ordering the restart of a nuclear reactor which supplied medical isotopes around the world, the dismissed head of the nuclear watchdog said on Tuesday.

Linda Keen was fired two weeks ago as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for what the government said was a failure to take into account the health of Canadians who needed isotopes for medical tests.

She had ordered the closure of the Chalk River reactor in Ontario on concern emergency backup procedures were inadequate.

The chance of a failure, she said on Tuesday, was only one in 1,000, but this was 1,000 times greater than the international standard of one in a million.

"Ignoring safety requirements is simply not an option," she told the House of Commons committee that is reviewing the circumstances surrounding the shutdown and subsequent restarting of the reactor over Keen's objections.

Parliament unanimously passed legislation in December ordering the restart of the reactor, which makes more than two-thirds of global supply of the isotopes, for about 76,000 tests per day. The isotopes are used to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions.

Health Minister Tony Clement told the committee after Keen's testimony that the government had to balance the small possibility of a nuclear safety incident "with the real certainty of a serious and growing health crisis."

"In the short term, the situation was threatening lives. If left unchecked, over the long term, the situation would have started taking lives," he said.

(Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

<p>Former Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen waits to testify before the Commons natural resources committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 29, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>