We're knee deep in the big muddy
By John Bennett
I’ve been watching reality TV this week (yes I really was) on CNSC TV (not SCTV, but not dissimilar in some ways), the web channel of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
I first tuned in to catch our very own Christine Elwell, Chair of Sierra Club Canada’s Ontario Chapter, present our submission to the Darlington nuclear re-build hearings. Christine -- as expected -- did a great job raising important questions about worrisome radioactive tritium and a number of other key issues, including the Canada/U.S. Air Quality Agreement.
I wish I could say it was commercial free programming, but the show was sponsored by Ontario Power Generation and its planned rebuild of the (I was going to say "aging” but that dates me too) Darlington nuclear plant just east of Toronto. The whole thing brought back a lot of memories for me… you could say Darlington and I grew up together; as a young Greenpeace activist in the 1970s it became the focus of my life and where I learned my trade. The first lesson of many was the importance of "environmental assessment".
Back then, Ontario had a pretty good environmental assessment law, but the (Progressive) Conservative Bill Davis government, at the urging (pleading) of Ontario Hydro, conveniently exempted Darlington -- the largest construction project in the history of province -- from an assessment. The Davis government insisted it had “no choice”… electricity was too urgently needed, and that an environmental assessment would take too long. Sound familiar?
We fought like hell to get a proper assessment - I was arrested twice. We saw it for what it was: a gross attack on democracy and the environment. There was no “urgent” need as government claimed. If someone had economic, environmental or (a broad range of) other concerns, or if someone had a better, cheaper, more efficient or safer alternative, we’ll never know. The public was silenced. Construction went ahead without accountability, transparency or public scrutiny or input. Fait accompli.
When the plant finally became fully operational in the early 1990s, the cost had ballooned from $3.6 to $13 billion. Think about that... it’s stunning. By the end of the 1990s it’s no wonder Ontario Hydro was bankrupt. The Ontario government was forced to "restructure" it, breaking up what was once the second largest utility in North American into a confusing mix of entities. To this day Ontario ratepayers still pay a "stranded debt" fee on every bill -- it’s printed right on the monthly bill. In essence, they’re paying for electricity someone used in 1995, all because of a single undemocratic decision made back in the 1970s.
Darlington is the youngest and biggest of Ontario’s nuclear plants. The first generation Pickering and Bruce plants both failed decades before they were supposed to and some of the reactors will never run again. The "refurbishments" took years longer and costs billions more than budgeted. But make no mistake about it: Darlington will be the biggest #FAIL of them all.
Radioactive Honey Boo Boo
Back to CNSC’s reality TV show… the MC is none other than Michael Binder, the blatantly -- embarrassingly, from a regulatory standpoint -- pronuclear President of the CNSC, who incidentally just had his contract extended 5-years by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (you may remember Joe suggested we were all foreign controlled money-laundering radicals). I wrote Mr. Oliver in protest of Mr. Binder’s appointment over a year ago, expressing Sierra Club Canada’s concern about the bias demonstrated by Mr. Binder. I got a form letter back that made no reference to, or mention of, my concerns over bias.
Mr. Binder’s bias, unfortunately, is mirrored by CNSC staff. They all come from the nuke industry, went to the same schools, have the same PhDs, etc. This is why separation of assessment and regulation is critical! When the federal government recently gave responsibility for environmental assessment to the CNSC it took Canada into a dangerous new realm.
Foxes in charge of nuclear henhouse
The primary purpose of an environmental assessment is to INDEPENDENTLY determine safety and viability of nuclear projects. This was one of the reasons why the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency was originally created - so there would be an independent body to conduct environmental assessments! It should question every aspect of a project to ensure all important questions are answered, including whether existing regulations are adequate. How can CNSC peer review its own review? It can’t; impossible. Should a body charged with setting regulations also be judge-and-jury about decisions regarding those regulations? Of course not.
But thanks to reality TV you can now judge the seriousness of the CNSC for yourself! Just watch the way Mr. Binder and his staff behaved during the past week’s hearing, showing no interest in -- if not contempt for -- outside views. Mr. Binder, like all reality show hosts, used inflection and facial expressions to make Christine and other interveners feel uncomfortable (while earnestly sucking-up to pro-nuke disciples). Watch for yourself - the evidence is as clear as the nose on Pinocchio’s’ face.
Darlington #Fail 2.0
After reflecting on those days back the 1980s, I now have some respect for Bill Davis’ approach - at least he was honest and clear (whether or not you agreed with his decision). What we have to today is far worse; scary. The Harper government now gives lip service to environmental assessment and green washes its image while stacking the deck to ensure no matter what, favored projects will go forward (future generations be damned). As I said, watching CNSC TV brought it all back to me, and it disturbs me to see us heading down the wrong road again.
The evidence against rebuilding Darlington is clear: the costs are as crazy as the disproportionate risks. But the authorities are willfully blind, choosing instead to ignore reality and believe the myth of their own invincibility. It all reminds of the song Pete Seeger sang about the Vietnam War on the Smothers Brothers Show in the late sixties (Knee Deep in the Big Muddy…and the Damn Fool Said to March On), and I remembered how public protest stopped the Vietnam War.
Pete was singing about Vietnam at a time when it looked like nothing could be done, but within a few years pubic protest had forced an end to the war.
We can do it again.