Good morning, everyone.
I'll just start by going through a few issues briefly.
First of all, I want to say that this meeting is a continuation of a study of nuclear safety issues, including the safety issues at the Chalk River nuclear reactor. We started this study about two weeks ago. We had invited two witnesses, who had agreed to come. The first was the Hon. Gary Lunn, Minister of Natural Resources. The second was the President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Linda Keen, who had agreed to come but at the last minute cancelled.
Today we have three witnesses. The first is from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. I'll go into a little more detail on these later. The second is Linda Keen, who is a commission member. The third is the .
I want to explain that this committee, at the last meeting, had agreed to invite three witnesses. The clerk did invite all of those witnesses. One witness, Michael Burns, indicated in a letter, which you should all have in front of you, that he would not appear and he gave an explanation for why he wouldn't appear. I believe you all have the letter in front of you. When that was clear there was a space at the meeting, and I invited the health minister, the , to come to the meeting. He was actually the first witness requested by the Liberal Party on its list of witnesses submitted. So that's where we are right now.
I see we have someone...I just want to finish the introduction here.
We will get to the witnesses. We have the Auditor General and others from her office at the table, but I understand there is someone who wants to speak, I presume on a point of order.
First I want to echo what has been said by Ms. DeBellefeuille, that perhaps the issue of motions that have been tabled and future witness lists should be discussed on Thursday. We have limited time today with the witnesses, and it looks like there might be consensus to deal with them on Thursday.
The other issue you touched upon was the invitation to Mr. Tony Clement. I want to draw your attention to a couple of quotes from the transcript that took place the last time we met. My colleague Mr. Proulx said:
||Is it not a rule that witnesses must be approved by the committee, in the sense that just because one members wants 14 different witnesses that doesn't mean the committee will necessarily accept that?
The Chair: Absolutely.
Mr. Omar Alghabra: I also want to quote another statement, where I said, “Will we examine it”—“it” refers to the witness list—“and consider it as a committee and agree on which witnesses to invite or not?” The chair said yes.
And then, Mr. Chair, you said:
||We may have to do that, the clerk and I, two members, without a meeting, if you want to go ahead with the meeting on the 29th and we can't get the witnesses you're talking about.
I responded by saying, “As long as we're all consulted on the witness list.”
And the chair said, “Sure. The clerk will do that. Agreed?”
I want to highlight that there was an explicit agreement that any new witnesses could not be added to the list without discussion with committee members. It's human nature to respond to such a unilateral act by becoming obstructionist, but because we're responsible and we want to hear from the witnesses today, we're going to agree. But we want to record our objection that this was an inexplicable action by the chair. I don't know why a witnesses was added, even though it was explicitly agreed....
Today we have a limited time to hear from witnesses. I'd like to have a commitment that if Ms. Keen agrees, the committee will be cooperative to invite her back again. That is a way that I think we can proceed. Even though Ms. Keen will only get an hour today, we could invite her back if we need to.
We thank you for the invitation to discuss our 2007 report of the special examination of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. As you mentioned, I'm accompanied today by Nancy Cheng, assistant auditor general, and Jean-Pierre Plouffe, audit principal, who are responsible for this examination.
I would like to begin with a few words about special examinations. Special examinations are a key component of the control and accountability framework for federal crown corporations. Our mandate for such examinations is set out in part X of the Financial Administration Act. The act requires the examiner to express an independent opinion to the boards of directors on whether the corporation has systems and practices in place to provide reasonable assurance that its assets are safeguarded and controlled; its financial, human, and physical resources are managed economically and efficiently; and its operations are carried out effectively.
Under the Financial Administration Act, almost all federal crown corporations are subject to a special examination at least once every five years, and the results are to be provided to the board of directors of the corporation. It is the board that decides if and when to make the special examination report public. Although there is no legislative requirement to do so, it is the government's intention to have these reports made public. Since March 2004, most crown corporations have posted the reports on their websites.
Although our special examination reports are addressed to the boards of directors of the corporations involved, we may bring the information in the report to the attention of the appropriate minister and of Parliament when we deem it appropriate.
Mr. Chairman, I will now turn to the special examination of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.
We presented our report to the board of directors of AECL on September 5, 2007. On September 25, 2007, I submitted a copy of the report to . In early October, I met the minister to discuss the contents of the report. On January 9, 2008, the corporation posted the special examination report on its website.
The areas that we examined included governance, risk management, research and development, products and services management, and the corporation's environmental and sustainable development practices.
We excluded the area that is within the mandate of the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). We did not do a technical assessment of the safety and security of the corporation's nuclear research facilities or waste management practices. Nor did we assess any of the technical design aspects of the corporation's products and services, whether nuclear or non-nuclear.
We reported a significant deficiency related to unresolved strategic challenges, which I will speak about in a moment. But first, let me explain that a significant deficiency is one that prevents or puts at material risk the organization's ability to achieve one or more of its statutory control objectives in support of its mandate. In particular, these objectives are: to safeguard and control the organization's assets; to manage its resources economically and efficiently; and to carry out its operations effectively.
We found and reported on three unresolved strategic challenges that have long-term funding requirements and together could prevent the corporation from achieving its mandate. These challenges are, first, the completion and licensing of the dedicated isotope facility for the production of medical isotopes; the development and licensability of the advanced CANDU reactor in time for the market requirements; and the replacement of aging facilities at the corporation's Chalk River Laboratories.
I would now like to address each of these challenges, starting with the dedicated isotope facility.
In 1996, AECL undertook a project to construct two MAPLE reactors and a new processing facility at the Chalk River laboratories for a customer to produce medical isotopes. This facility, known as the dedicated isotope facility, was designed to replace the national research universal reactor in the production of isotopes for the health and medicare industry. The NRU reactor is nearing the end of its useful life and is over 50 years old.
The dedicated isotope facility was originally planned to be producing isotopes by the end of 2000. There have been delays and increased costs, and the corporation has not yet resolved certain technical issues. At the end of March 2007, significant investments were still needed. When we completed our examination, AECL indicated that it expected to meet the in-service date of October 2008 for the first MAPLE reactor and the fall of 2009 for the second one, dates that are specified in the revised 2006 contract with its customer for the production of medical isotopes.
The second challenge relates to the development of a new generation of CANDU reactors. Because of changes in market conditions, the corporation changed its design to a larger reactor. This design change, along with more stringent licensing requirements and an enhanced project management approach, resulted in a significant increase in the cost estimates. At the end of March 2007, costs to complete the design of the new CANDU reactor were estimated at $400 million. Moreover, citing resource constraints, the regulator withdrew its service to provide pre-licensing assessment for AECL, putting the corporation at a competitive disadvantage in marketing the new reactors.
The third challenge involves the replacement of AECL's aging facilities at Chalk River, known as the Chalk River laboratories. AECL estimated that it needs to increase its operating and capital investment by some $600 million over the next five years and about $850 million over the next 10 years to address fire and building code deficiencies as well as licensing, health, safety, and security issues. A significant increase in funding is needed, but the source of the funds has yet to be identified.
We discussed all our observations and recommendations with senior management and the board, and they have agreed with us.
These challenges are long-standing issues that we have noted in previous special examination reports. Overall, the government needs to have a strategy for nuclear energy and to provide AECL with a clear mandate and strategic direction in that regard. The lack of clear direction is exacerbated by the fact that on numerous occasions the government has not approved AECL's corporate plan.
In 2002, we reported that its corporate plan had not been approved for seven years. In the 2007 report, we noted that the 2007-08 plan was not approved, and as far as we know, it has still not been approved by government.
In closing, I would like to clarify two points.
First, in 2002 we presented our special examination report to the Board of Directors of AECL. We also wrote to the and provided him with a copy of the report. The minister responded but did not choose to meet us. At that time, special examination reports were not made public and it was not common practice for ministers to request meetings to discuss the reports.
Second, as I noted earlier, we did not examine the area under the mandate of the regulator. When we conducted our examination in 2007, we were not made aware of any regulatory compliance issues related to the operation of the NRU reactor. Aside from the need and challenge involved in replacing this reactor, there is no mention of issues in the report that could be linked to the recent extended shutdown of the NRU reactor.
That concludes my opening remarks, Mr. Chairman. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee might have.
My comments were largely in relation to the independence that is required by quasi-judicial or regulatory bodies. Obviously, I'm not going to comment on the specific events that have occurred because I have no information other than what has been reported in the press. I prefer to do audits before I make comments on those sorts of things.
Clearly, I think there are questions that arise about the independence of regulatory bodies, how they are to be dealt with, and what the protocol is within government. There would certainly seem to be, at a minimum, a lack of clarity around some of this.
I think many of us, agents of Parliament and others, work very hard to ensure that we have independence and the perception of independence when we carry out our work. My comments were related to that, in that this could affect that.
I think time will tell, going forward--once, perhaps, more facts are known about this particular situation--how regulatory bodies are dealt with.
In my case, I can assure you that I have never felt that there have been any attacks or influence upon the independence of the Office of the Auditor General.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Madam Auditor General, welcome to you and your colleagues.
As you were giving your overview, I was reminded of the statement that there are three kinds of people: people who make things happen, people who watch things happen, and people who say, “What happened?” I think the public is trying to understand, through this committee, what happened.
In your report you indicated that when your examination was made in 2007, you were not aware of any regulatory compliance issues related to the operation of the NRU reactor and that there was no mention in the report of issues linked to the recent shutdown.
My question is aimed at attempting to take further steps with respect to closing the accountability loop. In other words, where does the buck stop?
Earlier you indicated, with respect to the licensing conditions, that in your examination, between February and October 2006, some licensing issues had cropped up. You also said that timely corrective action was taken to address these situations. My question is this. Had the AECL and the CNSC made an application for regulatory changes under their statutory area, is it possible that if action had been taken at that time, the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor could have been avoided? Did you have any follow-up role with respect to that?
As I say, Madam Auditor General, my question is aimed at knowing what recommendations would be made to close that accountability loop. It is not meant to be unduly investigative or anything like that. Thank you.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
If you don't have time, I would ask that you respond to the questions in writing to the committee after this.
Through you, Mr. Chairman, to the Auditor General, we hear that one of the outstanding problems that AECL had with the previous government was its inability to get approval for a corporate plan. This led to a number of unresolved strategic issues, including the funding of a replacement research reactor mentioned in the 1998 report. The issue came up again in the 2002 report, where it was stated that there was no consensus on how best to manage the nuclear platform, which included sustaining nuclear medicine.
So the previous government had been made aware of the problems at AECL on more than one occasion by your office. In the special examination report of the board of directors of AECL in 2007, in the section that refers to the unresolved strategic challenges and, more specifically, the completion of a dedicated isotopes facility, there was not the same sense of urgency that had been indicated in the 2002 report. How should the government of the day have responded to the 2002 report—which would have avoided what happened in 2007?
In 2002, billions of dollars were being directed into foundations. So funds for R and D were available, but why not for AECL?
What was AECL doing wrong that they would not be considered an appropriate candidate for what your reports have identified as a crown corporation in desperate need of funding?
Does your office audit the CNSC?
And lastly, in the 1998 report, there was mention of the workers finding some kind of nerve gas buried there. Could you tell me specifically what that substance was, and on whose behalf was it buried there?
We'll just go from there. Thank you.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, members of the committee, for this opportunity to meet with you today.
The recent events surrounding the nuclear facility at Chalk River and their impact on the supply of medical isotopes has raised a lot of questions among Canadians.
Canadians want to know—quite rightly—how such a situation could have developed. And they want to know what role the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission played in these events.
This morning I'd like to answer those questions, and I hope the information I supply will be helpful to this committee as it carries on its work.
First, why didn't the CNSC just go ahead and allow the NRU to operate without the emergency power system connected, given that there was a medical crisis, and why did the CNSC close it down?
The role of the CNSC is to ensure the safety of Canadians by regulating Canada's nuclear facilities. That's our job, that's our responsibility, and that's what the law prescribes. Some have suggested that the chance of a nuclear accident was low and the reactor was safe enough. With respect, safe enough is simply not good enough. Safety at a nuclear facility needs to meet the same high standards we expect from a space shuttle or a jumbo jet. The regulations the commission enforces and the standards it upholds are about far more than pushing paper; they are really about protecting lives. That's why when it comes to nuclear facilities, ignoring safety requirements is simply not an option--not now, not ever.
Some will say that the operation of a reactor always carries some risk with it, and that's true. But there are carefully established international standards as to what constitutes an acceptable risk. In the case of a nuclear fuel failure, the international standard for acceptable risk is one in a million. The chance of such an event happening at Chalk River without either of those pumps connected to the emergency power supply was one in a thousand. That is a thousand times greater than the international standard. Remember that NRU, as originally designed and constructed over 50 years ago, would not be licensable today by any nuclear regulator in the world.
There seems to be an impression left that CNSC ordered the NRU shut down. In fact, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited shut it down on November 19, 2007, for routine maintenance. It was AECL that extended that shutdown, because, as its senior vice-president told a CNSC public meeting on December 6, 2007:
||the only safe and prudent action available to me, I believe, in this situation was to shut the--keep the reactor shut down and perform those upgrades.
The commission's responsibility was to oversee that those upgrades were completed by AECL. Prior to the passage of Bill , those upgrades were not in place.
The second question was why the CNSC didn't take into account the effect of a shutdown on the production of medical isotopes. This is an important question that goes directly to the mandate of the CNSC.
As I mentioned, our primary responsibility in the case of this facility is to protect Canadians by ensuring that the nuclear facility is operating safely. Under the law, the commission did not have the authority to take the issue of isotopes into consideration when making its decision up to December 10. Indeed, in its directive of December 10, 2007, the government implicitly recognized this limitation on the commission's mandate by seeking to expand its authority to include consideration of the availability of isotopes. Such an expansion would not have been necessary if the commission already had that responsibility. The fact is it did not.
That said, the CNSC has always been very sensitive to the importance of these isotopes. The medical community relied on them and patients needed them; that's why the commission took every action available to it under the law to alleviate the situation. As the body responsible for licensing hospitals and clinics that use medical isotopes, the commission was able to amend licences on request in less than 24 hours to permit the use of alternative isotopes and to increase their inventory. That was within our mandate.
AECL itself recognized these efforts in a letter to the commission dated December 7, 2007, where it said:
||We believe that the health care community and the public at large have been reassured by the CNSC's demonstrated sensitivity to the importance of the beneficial use of radioisotopes....
To further alleviate the isotope situation, the commission also agreed to fast-track a complete application from AECL to get the reactor up and running, with a commitment to meet within 24 hours rather than the usual 60 days. In addition, the commission advised AECL that commission staff stood ready on a 24/7 basis to do everything in their power to help.
The third question is, why has the CNSC made such a big deal about its independence?
Well, Mr. Chair, independence in regulating nuclear facilities matters. It matters because nuclear reactors are in communities where Canadians live.
People in Chalk River, in Clarington, and in Bécancour all depend on the CNSC to ensure their families are safe. They need to know that the commission will make its decisions based on what's right. Indeed, Parliament delegates decision-making powers to these independent bodies like the CNSC precisely to preserve public confidence in the fairness of the process and the safety of the facilities. Under the law, that's how it's supposed to work. The Nuclear Safety and Control Act establishes the CNSC as a quasi-judicial body, as a court of record, and like a court, to be free of interference.
The government itself recognized the importance of such independence in its Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers, 2006, which states:
||The nature of the relationship between a Minister and an administrative tribunal with independent decision-making or quasi-judicial functions is a particularly sensitive issue. Ministers must not intervene in specific decisions of those bodies.
So the importance of independence is not something I've come to recently, as a matter of convenience.
That is why, before every hearing—and I have presided over hundreds as President of the CNSC—I read out a statement explaining the independence of the Commission.
So I haven't come to this recently. It's not a matter of convenience; it's a principle that I've insisted on.
Question 4, and relatedly, how did the CNSC react to Parliament's decision to legislate the reopening of the NRU reactor?
Well, Mr. Chair, Parliament is supreme, period. Neither I nor any Canadian would ever question the right of Parliament to act as it did.
Parliament was faced with two competing interests: nuclear safety, on the one hand, and the need for medical isotopes, on the other—not an easy decision, and one appropriately made by the elected representatives of Canadians.
Since the passage of that legislation, and as long as I was president, the CNSC has done everything it can to ensure it is in compliance with that bill. I also launched a lessons learned study led by international experts, a study that the commission had hoped would feed into a wider government review.
Mr. Chair, the situation that developed at Chalk River was one that no one sought and few foresaw. Different actors had different roles to play and different responsibilities to fulfill. I believe that at all times the CNSC acted as mandated by Parliament, as the body charged with ensuring nuclear safety.
Beyond that, Mr. Chair, I would hope that we would focus on learning the lessons of Chalk River so that this situation would never arise again. Canadians shouldn't have to choose between nuclear safety and medical isotopes; they should be assured of both.
To do that, we need to be sure that we have appropriate systems in place and that the roles and accountabilities are clearly defined. Canadians expect no more and they deserve no less.
With that, I thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I am now available to answer questions.
Ms. Keen, thank you for coming here today.
Before I begin my questions, I would like to offer you my apologies for the way the Conservative government has treated you. I don't personally know you, but from everything I've learned that is available in the public domain, I know you have been and continue to be a dedicated public servant who is committed to her job and takes her responsibility extremely seriously.
For no other reason, from what I can see, than purely political reasons, unfortunately your name and reputation have been dragged through the mud by this Prime Minister. It must have been horrifying for you and your family to watch it happen.
I just want to assure you that and do not speak for me as a member of Parliament, and I want to reiterate my apology. This is not how I believe dedicated public servants who have committed 20 years of public life should be treated. Thank you again for being here.
As I understand it, you were fired the night before you were about to testify before this committee, late at night. Can you please elaborate on that? Can you tell the committee how it happened?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Madam Keen, for your testimony.
To begin, I will join the Liberal critic in saying that at no time did the Bloc Québécois ever doubt your judgment and your competence, even though it supported the bill last December 11. We decided to choose the lesser of two evils. We do not agree with the minister's statement that we supported the bill because we agreed with him that you lacked judgment and competence.
You are a senior official and a woman, and there are not many of those. As a female member of Parliament, I support you and empathize with you in light of your situation. I believe you have a flawless record. Please rest assured that at no time did we ever shed doubt on your competence or judgment.
The more we learn about the situation, the clearer it becomes that there was political interference with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. It has become increasingly clear that the Minister of Natural Resources and the Minister of Health had other means at their disposal to avoid the crisis we went through.
We sincerely believe that the government chose the wrong target by firing you in such a cavalier and callous manner. In doing so, the government has sent a message to Canadians, namely that it will not shy away from attacking an independent organization whose sole mission is to protect Quebeckers and Canadians in the area of nuclear safety.
As a citizen and member of Parliament, I certainly do not find it reassuring that we are dealing with a government which does not hesitate to attack the independence of an organization like the one you headed.
A reporter from the newspaper Le Soleil said: “The nuclear sector is so dangerous that it requires the greatest degree of transparency, the greatest degree of information and public debate on the issue.” I have read all of the transcripts and every document related to discussions on the matter, and at no time did I have the impression that the CNSC did not give AECL its entire support and energy—you said it was 24/7—to move the process along so that the reactor could be safely started up again without breaching the conditions of the operating licence.
Ms. Keen, given the way the Conservative government dealt with you and the way it disregarded the independence of the organization, do you feel that it has sent a negative message to Quebeckers and Canadians, which is that it does not hold in high regard senior officials and organizations like yours, nor the role played by them, despite the fact that they are incredibly important to the safety of Canadians?
I think there are two aspects to the question from the honourable member.
First of all, as I indicated in my letter of January 8 to the minister, I strongly believed that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission was an independent organization and that we knew what it was like to be a quasi-judicial tribunal. I was the chair of the tribunal organization. I understood what it was and I understood what the guide said.
I put that chronology in my letter, and I thought about it very seriously, of the phone call the minister made to me on December 8—you'll recall that this was a Saturday—at home, and the subsequent letter I received on December 10, which asked me to justify the actions.... When, as it is discussed in adjudicative terms, the commission was “seized with the matter” of the AECL possible amendment, and because of it, this was a stepping over the line of what was reasonable for a minister in this case.
The second part of the question is.... As I noted again in my letter of December 8, I strongly believe that this action, including the letter the minister sent to me on December 27, wherein he asked me to justify why I shouldn't be fired.... It's not just the firing; it was the actions of December 8 and 10, as these were reported, and then it was the letter of December 27. Then finally there was the firing. This is the first time there has been discussion of what was actually in the letter. I think all of this will continue to put a chill through those organizations.
I can honestly say that the phone calls I get at night from people who will phone me at home—not from their offices.... They'll phone me at home with support or they'll send a note to my private e-mail. They won't send it to that.... I'm also a director of the Canadian Council of Administrative Tribunals, and it was discussed quite recently.
It's inevitable that people will at least look at this and ask what it means for them during the time period for which they're appointed.
That's my opinion.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I do have some opening remarks.
Before answering questions, I will review the measures taken by my department when it became aware of the prolonged shutdown of the NRU reactors in Chalk River and the ensuing shortage of medical isotopes.
Of course, I'm addressing this issue, Mr. Chair, from my perspective as the federal Minister of Health and my mandate to help protect, maintain, and improve the health of Canadians.
As members know, the Chalk River reactor is a critical source of medical isotopes in Canada and indeed worldwide. Radioisotopes are used in diagnosing and treating cancer and cardiovascular disease. They are relied upon by health care facilities in Canada and around the world.
In Canada alone, approximately 30,000 patients per week undergo nuclear medicine scans. As well, Chalk River provides isotopes for 76,000 tests per day worldwide. When the NRU reactor was shut down from November 18 to mid-December, I can tell you it significantly reduced the supply of these isotopes in Canada and around the world. In all, MDS Nordion estimates a 65% reduction of the isotopes in Canada during this period.
As soon as this fact was announced on December 5, we started taking immediate action. We began working with provinces and territories and with health system partners to determine the extent of the shortage and to assess options to respond effectively.
We communicated with nuclear medicine specialists to assess how best to manage the impacts on the health care system and on patients. We contacted 773 health care facilities across Canada, including up to 245 nuclear medicine facilities to determine the severity of the shortage. I personally communicated with provincial and territorial health ministers, and my officials kept in close contact with their provincial and territorial counterparts closely monitoring the situation as it evolved.
We also contacted other international agencies to determine the extent of the shortages worldwide. We quickly formed a group of experts from the fields of oncology, cardiology, and nuclear medicine, as well as representatives of the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine.
I want to refer, if I may, to the information we received from this group. Some people out there seem to think there really wasn't a health crisis after all and our response was overblown. Let me say that based on the information we gained from our advisory group, such people are absolutely wrong. This advisory group made it crystal clear to our government that we certainly were in the midst of what was a growing health crisis and one that needed action. This group estimated that approximately 10% of affected patients were facing life and death decisions and another 30% to 40% were facing the risk of underequipped physicians making inappropriate diagnostic and treatment decisions. In short, Mr. Chair, the situation was not sustainable and certainly not acceptable.
In realizing the impacts of the shortage, the Canadian Medical Association issued a statement saying that nuclear medicine services were now being rationed across Canada; that patients were deprived of timely access to critical diagnostic procedures; that this was impacting diagnostic services, timely surgery, and therapy planning, placing patients increasingly at risk; and that the decision to take the reactor off-line for an extended period of time had already affected critical medical management decisions and the numbers affected would escalate every day that the shutdown was in effect.
The most severe shortages were felt in smaller rural and remote centres, particularly in Atlantic Canada. One hospital in Newfoundland told me that most of their staff in nuclear medicine had been sent home because without isotopes no work could be done. Their last generator expired at noon on December 7 and they had no backup. All appointments for patients had been cancelled and all emergency patients were being turned away. For the health of Canadians we needed production to resume to prevent even more hospitals from going without. In the short term, the situation was threatening lives. If left unchecked over the long term, the situation would have started taking lives.
Given the serious consequences to the health of Canadians, we had a responsibility to seek information from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission about ways to resolve the growing health crisis. We wanted to see if there could be an expeditious hearing to consider the merits of AECL's safety case without in any way directing that the commission reach a particular conclusion, but as we know, such a hearing did not take place.
Our government then issued a directive stipulating that the commission's decisions take into account the health of Canadians who are dependent upon nuclear substances for medical purposes, but that had no effect. As a result, the government had to take the decisive action on December 12, proposing to Parliament. Following all-party passage of that bill, the reactor came back online on December 19 and isotope deliveries resumed during the holidays.
I believe we acted in such a way that we balanced the likelihood of a potential incident of nuclear safety with the real certainty--the real certainty--of a serious and growing health crisis. For this action, the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine publicly thanked the Prime Minister, myself, and all members of Parliament “of all political stripes”, to use their words, for the fast legislative action.
Some have said we could have obtained extra supply from international sources. Indeed, we moved quickly to try to obtain supply from the four other suppliers in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and South Africa. We contacted European suppliers. They were willing to help, but they found they could only increase their output by 10% to 15%, which would not be enough to meet Canadian demand. Also during this time, French and South African reactors were going through their own routine maintenance and were unable to meet Canada's supply shortage. Furthermore, time for producing and transporting these isotopes was significant, especially given the short lifespan of these products. In short, Mr. Chair, it was not an option to meet Canada's demand from international suppliers, particularly since Chalk River produces more than half the world's supply.
Now that production and delivery has resumed, my officials are continuing our work with the expert advisory group to examine contingency plans in the event of any future supply disruption. This work includes assessing the possibility of alternative sources of medical isotopes, along with substitute diagnostic techniques that could be used if needed. In addition, this work is also looking at opportunities for enhancing international collaboration to coordinate supply. Our expert advisory group will be preparing its initial assessment in February. At that point, I intend to convene health care professionals, provincial and territorial representatives, and other experts to assess the lessons learned and discuss the work of the expert advisory group.
Of course, one very important issue to consider in all of this is timely information sharing. Going forward to ensure timely notification of issues that may affect supply, we have developed a notification protocol among AECL, Natural Resources Canada, and Health Canada. This protocol provides clarity about who needs to be contacted and when. As well, it states that information will be shared immediately when it concerns the operations of the Chalk River reactor and, as a result, the supply of medical isotopes.
Under the new protocol, once my department receives timely information about a potential supply impact, a process will be triggered to contact provinces, territories, and relevant experts to assess the potential impact and launch strategies to respond. We will also be more closely monitoring information from suppliers, along with clinical trial and import licence applications, all of which could be early warning signals of potential medical isotope supply issues.
Let me give you an example. Health Canada receives routine requests from companies, including medical isotope supply companies, seeking special importation permits to adjust to supply shortages. This request is not unusual, and in fact we received one on December 3 from a company that had made the same request twice before in the past year.
As I mentioned earlier, when we were faced with the situation of shortages in early December, we took responsible action. I want to thank members from all parties—the Liberals, the New Democrats, the Bloc along with my fellow Conservatives—in both the House of Commons and the Senate—for passing our legislation so quickly.
In closing, I want to reiterate my central point that we had to act. Repeated requests to the regulator to see about an expeditious hearing were not met. Consequently, with all-party support in Parliament, we passed the necessary legislation, and the CMA and the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine thanked us.
I will leave it at that and say that partisan considerations aside, we're all here to do the utmost for human health and well-being. It was in that spirit that I believe we acted with good sense.
Thank you, Minister, for appearing today.
I have a lot of questions based on your testimony, based on things that I've also done some investigation on myself, and based on the notes from Minister Lunn that we received in a previous meeting.
I will set the tone here. On November 30, Natural Resources Canada received details from AECL on the implications of a prolonged shutdown on isotope supply. They were already being made aware on November 30 that there was going to be a prolonged shutdown. I'm just curious to know why it took until December 5 for you to get that information. That was another five days that we could have had to make sure that the supply was brought up to capacity.
I read from your documents that you are changing your reporting mechanisms. I think that's very important, because those were the first questions I had when this all came about. Why did it get to this point, and why did it take so long for ministers to be informed? Where did it all break down? Obviously some reporting mechanisms were not in place or people were not doing their jobs.
I find that quite disturbing, because this is such an important issue, and it put parliamentarians in a very disturbing position at the time to make the decision. And of course we made that decision, in all good conscience, on the health and safety of Canadians, and for all the right reasons. But again it goes back to how we got there in the first place.
Thank you, Mr. Minister, for coming today. I appreciate your clarification.
Apart from what you've had to say today, I don't think we've heard much new, but it seems to me we've had a series of increasingly desperate attempts by the opposition and some others to try to find an issue in this whole process.
If you'll recall, I think they began with the timelines, trying to confuse the timelines, trying to confuse the public with those timelines. The Minister of Natural Resources was here, was very clear on that, and clarified those timelines. Then the opposition resorted to trying to make some phoney connections between the Auditor General's report and Chalk River. It was clear, after the minister was here, and today, after the Auditor General was here, that there is no connection between her reports and what happened in November and December at Chalk River.
It's unfortunate, and probably most disconcerting to people, that the opposition now wants to rewrite the night of December 11. We had a genuine emergency. They supported us wholeheartedly while the emergency existed. Then once it was over they bailed out, and then have tried to make a political game out of this. Now I hear they want to try to pretend there was no issue at all.
At our last meeting with the Minister of Natural Resources, Mr. McGuinty called them fabricated health concerns, that the health crisis was fabricated. That contradicted, by the way, what his deputy leader had said, that the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine estimated that 50,000 Canadians a month would experience delays in their medical tests. He called it a national medical crisis and also said this situation was endangering the lives of millions of Canadians. So clearly we had a situation.
I also found it strange today that Mr. Alghabra seemed to be angry that you didn't move faster, but then we spent an hour listening to the fact that we shouldn't have moved at all, that we should have stayed out of this entirely. It's another one of the inconsistencies we've seen from them.
Yesterday, another strange accusation was made about you when it was said that you were actually discouraging isotope supply. I want to ask you to comment on that, but secondly, I just want to clear this up. The Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nuclear Medical Association, the government, the deputy leader of the Liberals, all the opposition parties agreed there was an emergency, a health crisis. I want you to tell us if that health crisis was real or if the health concerns were fabricated, as Mr. McGuinty said.
Let me answer that question directly first. The crisis was real, based on the assessment of the experts and our expert advisory group. These are nuclear medicine professionals and oncologists and cardiac specialists.
At the point at which Parliament passed the bill, our supply in Canada was already down by 65% and we were reaching the point at which mere inconvenience was tipping over into life or death situations. This is very serious. It was recognized as serious at the time by Parliament.
I can tell you none of that is fabricated. It doesn't come from me; it comes from the experts in the field, the people I rely on. I go to the field. I respect my colleagues I work with in the public service, but they, quite rightly, assisted me in going right down into the field, at the hospital level, at the clinic level, hearing from the experts. That's the first point I would make.
The second point I would make is to categorically reject the accusation that somehow we were trying to avoid foreign suppliers. We contacted foreign suppliers. A minister doesn't just get on the phone on a Saturday morning to phone the president of a rival of AECL in Paris. You don't do that if you're trying to discourage alternative supply. You're looking for alternative supply. That's exactly what I did and that's exactly what officials in Natural Resources Canada and Health Canada, working together, did.
So that is false. It's just not the way it happened. I am quite convinced that there was no stone left unturned by our departments, by the Government of Canada, by all those involved, to seek the best way to resume supply.
If I am permitted, I will answer in English, because my notes are in English on this particular file, and it's important to be exact.
The detailed chronology, which I am quite prepared to table to this committee, indicates that every single day—I don't want to go overboard, but practically every single hour, though not every single hour, for there were a couple of gaps in hours—there was the collection of new information and then decisions made to act and react to the information we were collecting.
Health Canada was first engaged on December 5; I have been quite clear about that. By December 6, we were collecting information and, through our briefing, understanding what potential other sources there were. That's when we first started the contact with South Africa and learned that they were closed down as well.
On December 7, NRCan officials contacted the foreign affairs department, because they take the lead on international engagement, and we started to send notices out to Canadian missions around the world to make the contacts with the key supplier companies.
On December 8, which was a Saturday, I personally contacted the CEO of one of the biggest suppliers in the world, AREVA, in Paris, and that individual was saying that she wanted to be of assistance to us. I started to get them connected into the system as well.
On December 9, the Canadian missions began their démarche with producers and processors and national governments.
On December 10, we got that conference call I referred to with all of the European producers to update them, to gather further intelligence, and to seek their support.
As you can see—and I would encourage you not to look at one day in particular—if you look at it as a stream of days, as more information came in and as more decisions were made on how best to deal with the crisis, obviously more actions were taking place.