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Friday's column on Thursday afternoon

Who's to blame in the increasingly bitter fight over the safety shutdown at the Chalk River NRU nuclear reactor and the worldwide shortage of medical isotopes that followed? The depressing answer I reached after long hours of research: pretty much everybody. Protip for media consumers: don't trust anybody who tells you some party in the dispute or other has nothing to be ashamed of.


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Comments (5)

George Skinner:

One interesting fact you didn't note is that Linda Keen was chair of the nuclear regulatory commission, but apparently had no background in nuclear energy prior to assuming her post. She also doesn't have an engineering background. It's grating to hear a bureaucrat prate about the need for arms-length regulatory authority when they appear to be lacking the specialized knowledge that constitutes the definition of an authority.

Yeah, and she's been replaced by someone equally inexperienced in the field, with each side's supporters criticizing the opposite side's pet bureaucrat for not knowing anything.


Strangely enough, expertise in nuclear safety shouldn't have to be a necessary qualification for heading up such an organization. The engineers can set up the guidelines and run the tests, and they can report to the larger bureaucratic apparatus which can then put those findings into place. The president's role is to make sure the agency fulfills it's mandate, and many such agencies are headed up by individuals who never conduct front-line work.

Criticizing Keen for not having an engineering background is largely predicated on thinking she overruled the technical staff when they presented their report or misunderstood their findings. Is there any talk of that happening?

There was no debate over technical facts at all. The tech staffs of the operator and the regulator were in constant touch and everybody understood what was going on: the issue was that Keen had received neither a formal application for an emendation of the license or a written "safety case" for running the reactor with the pumps attached to the pre-existing power supplies.

George Skinner:

I think Keen's lack of an engineering background may have been a factor in this showdown. The commission fixated on the paperwork instead of balancing the consequences of an extended reactor shutdown against the risk of not having a third back-up power supply. Engineers can fall into that trap as well, but a non-technical person will often cling religiously to regulations as a security blanket when they lack the necessary technical background.


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