Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wall’s pursuit of nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes sidesteps public consultation process; ES officials reviewing submissions, not Perrins

Premier Brad Wall’s announcement on July 8, 2009, that the Saskatchewan Party government and the University of Saskatchewan have formed a partnership to pursue and fast track bringing a nuclear research reactor that will produce medical isotopes to Saskatoon has effectively bankrupt the future of uranium in Saskatchewan public consultations process currently underway of any remaining credibility.

For the past month Wall has been shamelessly using the power of his position, and the current shortage of medical isotopes, to promote and justify submitting a proposal to the federal government before the consultation process is completed.

The premier is also continuing to peddle the false notion that his party campaigned on adding value (i.e. nuclear power) to the uranium the province produces.

The story begins on May 28, 2009, when Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that the Government of Canada was establishing an expert panel to review proposals from the private and public sectors for new sources of key medical isotopes for Canada. Proposals will be accepted until July 31, 2009 and the Expert Review Panel will produce a final report for the Minister of Natural Resources by November 30, 2009.

The federal government said in a backgrounder that it had “received a number of ideas from the private sector, universities and research organizations concerning alternative production of key isotopes for the Canadian market over the longer term. Some of the ideas put forward, if fully developed, could provide a basis for longer term supply.” The document doesn’t say whether any of those ideas came from Saskatchewan.

It should be noted that CBC News reported on July 8, 2009, that Richard Florizone, a vice-president of the University of Saskatchewan, said that the institution has been examining the feasibility of building a research reactor for the past year. [Saskatchewan to make federal bid for isotope facility, premier confirms (CBC News, July 8, 2009)]

Florizone was also the chair of the pro-nuclear Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) that the Wall government appointed to identify, evaluate and make recommendations on Saskatchewan-based, value added opportunities in the uranium industry. The panel’s report, Capturing the full potential of the uranium value chain in Saskatchewan, concluded that, “Although medical isotope production provides an attractive source of revenue for a research reactor, the economics of a stand-alone isotope reactor are not attractive.”

However, recommendation number 20 states that the province should: “Partner with the Federal Government to pursue the construction of a research reactor in the Province as a complement to synergies with existing research infrastructure and capabilities, and to better position the Province to participate in multiple areas of study. Pursue medical isotope production as part of the reactor’s mandate.” How convenient for Florizone and the U of S!

The optics got even worse on July 9, 2009, when The StarPhoenix reported that the research reactor working group formed by the government, the university and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency is being co-chaired by Florizone and Crown Investments Corporation vice-president and longtime Saskatchewan Party insider Iain Harry. [Reactor partnership reached (StarPhoenix, July 9, 2009)]

The federal lobbyists’ registry in Ottawa shows University of Saskatchewan president Peter Mackinnon to be one of the more active lobbyists having met or communicated with various federal officials, including the prime minister, 57 times from January 13, 2009, to June 25, 2009.

On June 10, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a news conference that Canada was abandoning the isotope business. Harper said the government would keep the problem plagued Chalk River reactor, closed since May 14, operating until 2016 when “other sources of the isotopes around the world come online.” [Canada to get out of isotope business, PM says (Globe and Mail, June 11, 2009)]

It was at this point Wall began hinting at the role Saskatchewan could play in addressing the medical isotope shortage.

In the article Wall eyes role for Sask. in nuclear medicine (StarPhoenix, June 12, 2009) the premier said the province could “provide real answers to the world on the medical isotopes issue.”

“I’m waiting to hear from the Saskatchewan people, but I would say I have an interest in it, very much so,” Wall told reporters at a press conference on June 11, 2009.

“I’m not going to preclude what we hear from the people of this province and from (consultation chair Dan) Perrins and from the process we have with the Uranium Development Partnership,” said Wall.

“It is the view of the government, not to the exclusion of the input we’ll receive, but it is the view of the government -- we campaigned on the view -- that we should add value to the uranium at some level.”

Wall’s claim that the Saskatchewan Party campaigned “on the view” appears to be false. The party’s 2007 election platform states on page 18 that “Enterprise Saskatchewan will act as the lead agency for enhancing the value-added potential of Saskatchewan’s natural resources. Enterprise Saskatchewan will… Explore and identify uranium value-added opportunities.” That’s it, nothing more.

The platform does not mention nuclear reactors, the storage of nuclear waste or medical isotopes. Furthermore, a search of The StarPhoenix and Leader-Post archive shows that during the 2007 election Wall did not once mention any of these things. No articles could be found. The same goes for Saskatchewan Party news releases.

Wall has been peddling this nonsense since December 2007 when the aging Chalk River reactor was in the news then, too.

In the article Nuclear medicine tests a go (StarPhoenix, Dec. 8, 2007) Wall said he was mulling whether Saskatchewan should have its own nuclear reactor.

“Right now the country is talking about what's happening in Chalk River, and I know there is some capacity there with two other AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada) facilities,” Wall said. “The world will need more medical isotopes in the future, not less. So would the government of Saskatchewan, this new government of Saskatchewan, be interested in the (research and development) side of nuclear medicine, of the potential of a research reactor? Yes we would be.”

He said Saskatchewan is fortunate to house the head office of Cameco Corp. and have Areva’s largest presence in Canada. (Both companies were represented on the UDP).

“There are some opportunities here, I think, to work with those companies and other interests to see how we can fully develop the uranium value-added chain within the context of what we have talked about in policy and in the campaign,” Wall said.

Wall’s plans appear to have laid dormant until the recent isotope crisis and the federal government’s request for proposals, which seem to be providing the premier with an adequate cover story to deflect criticisms that he’s sidestepping the consultations process.

On June 20, 2009, the Globe and Mail published a story quoting Wall as saying he wants to launch a full-speed effort to build a research reactor within two to three years, likely at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. He said it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and that the province would pay part of it.

Wall said he discussed the issue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but that the federal government has not yet made any commitments. The date of the conversation was not given.

The article notes, “Wall is looking to act quickly on a research reactor: A final decision will come as soon as August, after consultation with the public. He stressed that public reaction will be key to how he proceeds. But he said he believes there is more support for nuclear power in Saskatchewan than in other jurisdictions, in part because uranium mining has created some familiarity with the nuclear industry.” [Premier wants isotopes reactor in Prairies (Globe and Mail, June 20, 2009)]

On June 22, 2009, Wall added a new level of absurdity to the situation suggesting that the province could always withdraw any proposal submitted if the public doesn’t support it.

In a telephone interview with The StarPhoenix the premier said, “The challenge that we have is the federal government’s terms of reference for this review, or for (accepting) some proposals on isotopes, takes us to about the end of July so we may be in the position of presenting a ‘subject to’ proposal -- subject to the people’s input.” [Wall will listen first on isotopes (StarPhoenix, June 23, 2009)]

On July 8, 2009, Wall told reporters that “We can always opt out of the process,” adding that he believed there was an opportunity for Saskatchewan to take a leading role in nuclear medicine. “I think Saskatchewan should be exploring the opportunity to be a leader, a world leader.” [Saskatchewan to make federal bid for isotope facility, premier confirms (CBC News, July 8, 2009)]

Thus far Wall has failed to state categorically that the province will withdraw any proposal submitted if the public does not support the building of a nuclear reactor regardless of what it’s used for.

The premier’s comments over the past month raise a few questions:

– Why was the possibility of a proposal not revealed earlier? Clearly, the government and U of S have been working on this issue for some time.

– Will Wall let the public see the complete proposal after it is submitted, or is going to make excuses on why it can’t be released?

– Does Wall think the people of Saskatchewan are dumb enough to believe the government would actually withdraw a proposal after spending so much time working on it behind closed doors with the U of S?

– Would the federal government take seriously a proposal that comes with a warning saying it might be pulled off the table?

Finally, what effect will the premier’s current behaviour have on the outcome of the public consultations process? Will it skew the results? The deadline for individual and stakeholder submissions for that process is also July 31.

One thing the public does not realize is that Perrins might not be personally reading everything sent to him.

According to a May 25, 2009, briefing note obtained from Enterprise Saskatchewan under the province’s freedom of information legislation, three officials from Enterprise Saskatchewan are assigned to work with Mr. Perrins on a full-time basis. Two of the individuals “manage all the input that is received from the public via phone, e-mail and letters” and report “to Mr. Perrins on a weekly basis on what the people of Saskatchewan are saying in their correspondence about the UDP report and any future uranium development in Saskatchewan.”

This could mean that what Perrins has been getting each week is the Readers Digest version of what’s been said. It will be difficult to know if he’s being told everything.

The public wasn’t told that the job of reading and/or summarizing the submissions would be delegated to government officials. This could come back to haunt Perrins and the Wall government if complaints start coming in after the final report is released from people that don’t see their comments included.

The names of the people helping Perrins have not been revealed.

One thing is for sure, though, Premier Brad Wall’s shameless end run around the consultations process has made the whole exercise twice the sham than it already is.


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