Friday, June 5, 2009

The Isotope Crisis Reveals More Conservative Deceit

The Canadian public is being lied to again by our government. This time it is over isotopes and the nuclear plant at Chalk River, and involves the Prime Minister and two members of his cabinet, who have not only kept vital information from the House of Commons, but also from us.

How can we trust anything they say?

Barely a week ago, they told us that everything was fine and that there was no crisis. Then we learn that Lisa Raitt left a top secret file behind at a media outlet, which revealed many contradictions, meaning that everything wasn't fine. In fact, everything was a mess.

Don't worry, be happy. I think not.

Chalk River crisis? What crisis?
Don Martin,
Canwest News
May 26, 2009

OTTAWA -- Perhaps Canada's current minister in charge of nuclear heavy water leaks, production shutdowns and radioactive medical fallout isn't as rabidly excitable as the one who presided over the last idling of the ailing Chalk River power plant.

Natural Resources Minister
Lisa Raitt deploys her natural Cape Breton serenity when confronting the indefinite shutdown of the world's most important isotope-production plant, despite the imminent spectre of cancer patients racked up and backed up waiting for increasingly scarce diagnostic imaging material.

When confronted by predictions of medical mayhem from her opponents in the House of Commons, Raitt's words translate roughly into: "Crisis? What crisis?" as she points to her "five-point plan" for handling this sort of isotope supply interruption.

This grand plan is actually a one-page ministerial statement that, among other modest moves, pledges to "ensure that Canada plays a leadership role in the planned discussions" in Paris over security of isotope supply.

She almost makes it sound as if other sources of isotopes or medical alternatives to Chalk River are an eBay order away and, to be fair, whispers say she will announce a long-term isotope supply contract on Thursday.

Still, it's all quite the contrast to the hyperkinetic Gary Lunn she replaced, who fired Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission chair Linda Keen in an early 2008 huff for refusing to kick-start the plant on his command because he was convinced the continued shutdown could spill blood on his political hands.

He whipped Parliament into a frenzy just 17 months ago and secured unanimous all-party approval to over-ride Keen's safety concerns in the public's interest and kick-start plant operations.

It wasn't just Lunn sounding the alarm.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper cautioned in 2007 that this particular reactor's shutdown would "jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians," yet he has yet to respond to the current crisis in the Commons.

Former health minister Tony Clement warned "every day counts in this situation. Two or three days works out to something like 210,000 procedures worldwide."

Yet the current health minister spent Tuesday banning flavoured tobacco product and discussing Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean's symbolic dining on a raw seat heart.

This oddly muted response confuses Keen, who returned to Parliament Hill for media interviews on Tuesday for the first time since her firing.

She rates this shutdown as much, much worse than the safety compliance concerns she raised over a pair of disconnected pumps.

With new spills being noted regularly and reluctantly released by the plant's Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. owners, Chalk River has become the most notorious leaky ship in Canada's nuclear power fleet.

That's why she's gobsmacked by missing signs of urgency in coping with a crisis the Canadian Medical Association predicts will soon impact 30,000 patients per week in Canada with another 400,000 patients in the United States cut off from precious isotopes.

As someone fired for being the catalyst of a medical crisis in 2007 only to witness an almost nonchalant government response to a far more dire situation brings a wry smile to her face. "The irony is complete."

It's not only the government shrugging off this ugly scenario. Despite experts calling it a ‘catastrophe in the making,' the Chalk River shutdown has rated just three questions in the House of Commons this week.

If the Conservative blueprint for coping with a sick nuclear plant that has immense global medical significance is a single sheet of paper, the politics of this issue will go radioactive and the public reaction will go nuclear even faster than the economic meltdown.

Leaks at a nuclear plant? What's the problem? Sure you'll glow in the dark, but just think of the money you'll save on batteries. Greg Weston also weighs in.

Minister's slip reveals deceit
By: Greg Weston
London Free Press
June 4, 2009

While Canada's broken-down medical isotope reactor is no longer producing a drop of anything of value to cancer patients, it is certainly generating ample political baloney from the Conservative government.

The 52-year-old Chalk River reactor that ordinarily produces up to half the world's supply of medical isotopes for cancer scans has been shut down indefinitely after it sprang a radioactive leak May 14.

Now the rusting relic is the subject of a different kind of leak -- an entire binder of sensitive government documents on the reactor and the federal agency that runs it, Atomic Energy of Canada.

The internal briefing notes for Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt were accidentally left behind at CTV's studios after a recent interview with her on the Chalk River mess and resulting medical isotope shortage.

When the network finally aired the lost-docs story, Raitt says she tendered her resignation to the prime minister, but he refused to accept it.

Instead, the axe dropped on Raitt's 26-year-old press secretary Jasmine Macdonnell, one of the brightest young lights on Parliament Hill.

As one insider said: "Someone had to take the fall."

The opposition parties, of course, wanted that somebody to be Raitt.

After all, they argued, Maxime Bernier was sacked from cabinet last year for leaving classified documents at his girlfriend's pad.

As Stephen Harper said back then: "Ministers are always responsible for the protection of classified documents. The minister (Bernier) admitted his mistake in this matter and resigned his post."

At a press conference yesterday, Harper said the difference between the two cases is "personal responsibility" -- Bernier lost documents all on his own, while Raitt could point a finger at staff.

Or not. More likely, Bernier was sacked from cabinet because his sexploits with former biker chick Julie Couillard had obscured his judgment and made him a political disaster waiting to happen. The lost documents were just the final excuse for an execution.

Raitt is exactly the opposite -- smart, experienced, politically astute, an excellent communicator, a female from seat-rich Ontario, and generally one of Harper's stronger assets in cabinet.

In short, she is worth taking a flak attack over lost documents.

Further proof this is a government that doesn't let the truth get in the way of public opinion is to be found in the contents of Raitt's lost briefing book.

For instance, taxpayers learn for the first time that the Harper government has pumped a staggering $1.7 billion into Atomic Energy just in the past three years -- most of it up in smoke if the Chalk River reactor remains beyond repair.

Even if the reactor had remained working, Raitt's briefing documents say Canadian taxpayers would have had to shell out $72 million this year to produce medical isotopes, 90% of which go to U.S. hospitals.

The documents openly admit the financial truth about Chalk River was deliberately hidden in the last federal budget.

But nowhere have Harper and his ministers been caught tripping over their outstretched noses more than in their handling of the growing medical isotope crisis caused by the Chalk River shutdown.

Sixteen months ago, the Harper government ordered the reactor restarted after a shutdown for safety reasons, saying cancer and heart patients would die without an immediate isotope supply.

At that time, the shutdown lasted four weeks and the world's other four isotope reactors were operating.

This time, the situation is far worse -- Chalk River is out of order indefinitely and two of the other reactors are also down.

Yet, Raitt testified at a Commons committee this week there is nothing to panic about. Either the Harper government lied to Canadians 16 months ago, or it is lying today. Either way, government deceit is a far bigger issue than lost documents.

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