I was able to catch some of the Natural Resources Committee meeting today. The show in Cambridge was one thing, but this was really something else.
The witnesses were not showpieces, nor were the questions from all opposition members scripted. The tone and tenor from the government however, was more than disturbing.
I should note that every single meeting I've had a chance to look in on this week has been the same. The government is completely unabashed in attacking witnesses. You'd think they were nervous or something.
Anyway, today we learned that the government hasn't been truthful. Now, I know it's a shock to read those words, but here we go.
A brand-new backup nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont. produced enough medical isotopes during some test runs to supply the needs of every Canadian hospital and clinic, a parliamentary committee was told Thursday, putting a dent in one argument the Conservatives have been using to defend their decision last spring to mothball that backup plan.
The revelation that the MAPLE reactors at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s Chalk River Laboratory did indeed produce the isotope Moly-99, the key ingredient used in pharmaceutical radioisotopes, came on the same day doctors in Quebec said as many as 12,000 patients there have had their cancer and cardiac tests put off because of a shortage of those isotopes.
Now, consider what we've heard from the government from the time they fired Linda Keen, to shutting down the MAPLE reactors, to the recent bumblings from Raitt.
While it's true that AECL was not yet able to prove that the MAPLE reactors could be safely operated in emergency conditions, it is not true that they were incapable of and indeed did, produce isotopes.
But AECL could never prove to Canada's nuclear safety regulator that the MAPLEs could be operated safely in emergency conditions and so, last spring, AECL pulled the plug on their development with the backing of the government. Ever since, AECL executives and senior members of the government have justified this decision by saying the MAPLEs never produced an isotope.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated that defence of the government's decision, saying, "after hundreds of millions of dollars and years and years of investment, not a single isotope had been created and the expert assessment we received was that there was no realistic reason to believe there would be any isotope production for years and years to come, if ever. So it was not a viable project."
I'm not sure. Have we ever had a PM that actually never seems to speak the truth?
But Jill Chitra, a vice-president and professional engineer at MDS Nordion told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources that is incorrect.
"From 2000 to 2008, the MAPLE reactors ran numerous times at various power levels, up to 80 per cent power," Chitra said. "(Isotope) targets were inserted in the reactor for a number of those tests. When targets are inserted in the reactor and it operates at power, isotopes — Moly-99 — is created."
Chitra said that the targets were simply not processed or harvested.
"Those targets could have been removed and processed and you'd have had medical isotopes for sale," Chitra said. "It's one of the reasons we think MAPLE has potential."
Yes, yes, I know. MDS Nordion is in the business of making money from this process, but hey, I thought the Conservatives were all about the free market! Not so much apparently, because the government side of the Committee room was rife with recrimination on this subject. Literally accusing the spokespeople of only being there to protect their business and profit margin. Thankfully there was an independent defender to the claims.
Chitra's testimony that the MAPLEs had produced isotopes was backed up at the committee by an independent expert, John Waddington. He served on the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the safety regulator, until 2000. Waddington is not connected with AECL or MDS Nordion.
The government's, sorry, I should say, the Conservative party's agenda is pretty clear here, but they are playing with lives now.
I suppose they always have been, but surely none of us thought it would become so literal.