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Monday, January 28, 2008

Chalk River: How to Turn a Victory for Democracy into a Tawdry Political Episode

While the temporary closure of the Chalk River nuclear facility last month still seems to garner political debate, one has to ask how it is that a perfectly reasonable demonstration of democracy in action can be turned into such a political albatross. If the esteeemed Minister of Natural Resources is accepting advice on the management of the issue, then he should fire his advisors.

The issue was a classic case of how legitimate but competing concerns crop up in political life. On the one hand Canada's nuclear safety agency acting in a probably overly obsessive manner about the need for nuclear safety (not that that is at all bad in the area of nuclear safety) and on the other hand the healthy diagnostic needs of Canadians and others worldwide.

The question here is whether Linda Keen was being responsible in not authorizing a resatart of the isotope facility at Chalk River once it became apparent that the health need was becoming critical. One has to realize that public servants operating in a single job are not usually manadated to look out for the broad spectrum interests of Canadians, let alone foreign nationals. They tend to have a very narrow specialist orientation. Keen was manadated to look after nuclear safety and on that issue to accept essentially zero levels of risk. This is in my mind is essential to ensure that a nuclear accident never occurs. Keen from all accounts was particularly suited to this task -- a real pain for following the rules.

Yet in following the rules as she saw them she came in conflict with the health needs of Canadians. Was she wrong in failing to accomodate those needs? No. Her sphere of concern was nuclear safety and the tolerance of zero risk. In her job, bending the rules is not something that is done. Yet in real life we all know that sometimes the judicious bending of the rules can sometimes be done without ill effect. But she decided that bending wasn't possible and that was that. I may disagree with her but it was her call to make that decision with regard to nuclear safety.

This however, is not the end of the story. As everyone knows the issue was raised in Parliament and Parliament unanimously overturned Keen, reopened the Chalk River plant and restarted isotope production. This was a brilliant stroke of democracy because Parliament is the final arbiter of competing interests in our democracy. Parliament was fully within its right to overturn Keen's decision as a means of balancing the infintesimally small risk of a meltdown at Chalk River with the very real posssibility of harm coming from not producing those isotopes. It was not the task of the Executive to overturn Keen, but it was the right of Parliament to do so.

This should have ended the whole affair as a wonderful demonstration of democracy in action. Instead the circumstances have been muddled by accusations by the Government about Keen's motivations and then her enventual firing on the eve of her testimony before a House committee. Now the Minister and the Government look like a bunch of partisan hacks whose own motivation seems to be a degree of petulance that Keen didn't ask how high when asked to jump.

A better way would have been to praise Keen for her vigilance on nuclear safety but underscore Parliament's right to balance the interests of Canadians. The Government could have made great hay about the unanimous, non-partisan agreement they secured to re-open the facility. Further, federal bureaucrats would have been comforted that they could indeed "speak truth to power", as our Westminster tradtion suggests they should, while leaving the ultimate trade-off decisions in the hands of Canada's elected representatives. Such an approach would have left everyone thinking the right thing had been done. Instead the Government has shot itself in the foot.

Canadians are a well educated lot and they appreciate the difference between acting in their interest and acting in partisan interest. The Minister of Natural Resources seems to have chosen the latter over the former and now the issue will be remembered not as an example of how the system is meant to work but as a crass political act.


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