Canadians are not well served by Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn’s firing of Linda Keen, the country’s top nuclear-safety watchdog.
Keen shut down the Chalk River nuclear reactor because Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. failed to comply with established safety regulations. She did her job.
But Chalk River produces most of the world’s medical isotopes. The closure threatened that supply.
Which put the Harper government in a pickle.
Opening the facility put Canadians at risk of a nuclear accident. Not opening the facility deprived medical facilities of needed isotopes, a shortage which directly endangered Canadians.
After weighing the options, Lunn ordered the facility to open.
But Keen, as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, refused to give her blessing to that decision. And she was right to do so — the reactor still failed to pass the safety regs.
Her decision to oppose the government decision angered cabinet. She was publicly attacked by Harper, who questioned her credentials, and by Lunn, who questioned her judgment.
However, Keen’s focus is nuclear safety, not the world supply of medical isotopes.
As head of a quasi-judicial body, she’s supposed to be protected from ministerial interference.
That power is bestowed the commission to protect the agency and the public, giving its officers the authority to make tough decisions in the public interest without fear of reprisal.
In firing Keen, Lunn has violated that independence.
And that’s a very dangerous precedent.
It announces cabinet is prepared to sack regulatory officials who, in the course of doing their job, issue rulings that run counter to government objectives.
The alternative is having regulators turning a blind eye to dangers in the interest of keeping their career.
That’s where the nation is headed.
It bears noting the current fracas also provides necessary cover for Lunn.
In August, the federal auditor general drafted a report on AECL’s Chalk River isotope plant. It said the facility was well beyond its intended life.
In September, Lunn was briefed on the issue. There is no evidence he brought this concern to cabinet. If he had, he could have directed more resources to Chalk River, and the isotope supply might have been protected.
In November, Keen’s staff discovered the plant didn’t comply with safety regulations. The shutdown was ordered on November 22.
In a comment published in Friday’s Globe and Mail, York University political science professor Reg Whitaker suggests that Lunn is the one who should be sacked.
“The minister had ample time to consider the implications of a serious problem under his ministerial jurisdiction, time to warn cabinet and time to devise reasonable solutions,” wrote Whitaker. “If he remained ignorant of the issue, he has demonstrated incompetence. If he was informed, yet failed to take appropriate measures, he has shown negligence.”
Yet it is Keen who has been sacked.
And that sends an ominous message.
The government must now act to reassure quasi-judicial appointments that their rulings will be respected. (RM)