January 9, 2008 / 12:28 AM / 10 years ago

Canada government set to fire nuclear watchdog

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government is considering firing the country’s top nuclear watchdog after she insisted on the closure of a crucial reactor that makes radioisotopes for cancer tests, officials said on Tuesday.

<p>A sign is seen outside the reactor at the Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) Chalk River nuclear facility during a media tour in Chalk River, Ontario, December 19, 2007. The Canadian government is considering whether to fire the country's top nuclear watchdog after she insisted on the closure of the facility, a crucial reactor that makes radioisotopes for cancer tests, an official said on Tuesday. REUETRS/Chris Wattie</p>

Last month, the ruling Conservatives forced legislation through Parliament to order that the Chalk River reactor be restarted for 120 days. The reactor makes more than two-thirds of the global supply of medical isotopes.

The law overruled the decision of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission President Linda Keen, who said the move was too risky because some safety back-up systems were not working.

On Tuesday the commission released a letter that Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn -- in overall charge of nuclear matters -- wrote to Keen on December 27 to say he was considering a recommendation to fire her.

“These events cast doubt on whether you possess the fundamental good judgment required by the incumbent of the office of president,” he wrote. “These doubts have led me to question whether you should continue to serve as president of the commission.”

In her reply to Lunn, dated January 8, Keen said his allegations were both troubling and without merit. She said she had no intention of quitting.

“The nature of the allegations that have been made, coupled with your threat to have me removed as president, seriously undermine the independence of the CNSC,” she wrote, adding that Lunn was improperly interfering with the commission.

One prominent green group said it was deeply concerned by the implications of Lunn’s letter and said Parliament should give Keen protection from political interference.

“The safety of Canadians is threatened when our Nuclear Safety Commission is subject to the kind of bullying the minister has demonstrated,” said Stephen Hazell of the Sierra Club of Canada.

The official opposition Liberals said they were surprised and bewildered by what Lunn had done.

“I don’t agree that she (Keen) should be fired ... she was doing her job. We can argue that maybe she was too rigid at one point or not, that’s a fair and a healthy discussion,” party legislator Omar Alghabra told Reuters.

The 50-year-old Chalk River reactor was shut down by operator Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd in November, quickly triggering shortages.

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.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who strongly criticized Keen for her conduct, said after the reactor was started up that Ottawa would address the root causes of the problems. AECL head Michael Burns subsequently quit.

A senior government official told Reuters last month that Keen’s position was becoming “increasingly difficult.”

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.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway

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