Is Canada prepared for a nuclear disaster?

Jenny Uechi
Vancouver Observer
Date published: 
Fri, 2011-04-22

Ottawa's invested too much and grown too close to act as an independent regulator, critics say. Jenny Uechi Posted: Apr 21st, 2011 Send Article Print Article Read More:CanadaNewsWorldCanadian Nuclear Safety CommissionCNSCDarlingtonGentilly 2Gordon EdwardsHydro QuebecJohn Bennettnuclearnuclear powernuclear power plantPickeringradiationSierra Club « prevnext »Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Ottawa is too involved in Canada's nuclear industry to effectively regulate it, critics say. To tackle the problem, they're calling for a non-partisan royal commission inquiry into the future of the country's nuclear power industry.

Gordon Edwards, president and co-founder of the Canadian Coalition of Nuclear Responsibility, said the federal government is "completely dependent on the nuclear industry to tell them what to do."

“If we were to have a nuclear emergency in Canada, we would be at the mercy of industry,” he said. “We have not developed alternative nuclear experts who we can turn to."

There are five nuclear power plants in Canada, all in the east. Two of them are in earthquake zones: Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario and Gentilly 2 in Quebec.

In March, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and led to an ongoing nuclear crisis there, vigorous debate broke out in the U.S.; Germany shut down older nuclear reactors. But in Canada, the provinces simply reaffirmed support for nuclear power plants, with even oil-rich Alberta saying it would not rule out the nuclear option.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), the federal regulator of Canada's nuclear power plants, has ordered major nuclear power plant operators (AECL, Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power and Bruce Power) to review safety protocol. They have also launched a new task force comprised of CNSC experts to “evaluate the operational, technical and regulatory implications” of Japan’s earthquake in relation to Canadian nuclear power plants.

But critics say that's not enough. They're calling for more outside inspection of the safety of Canadian nuclear power plants.

Government and nuclear power

Canada has a long history with nuclear power. Since the end of the Second World War, the government has poured billions of dollars in research and development to build a nuclear power program, which the government bills as a "clean, affordable, reliable" source of energy.

Estimates vary, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office said in 2009 that the government-run Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) had received 30 billion dollars in public funding since 1952. Of the country's nuclear power operators, Bruce Power is the only private-run company; the rest are owned by government.

Aurèle Gervais, a spokesperson for the CNSC, confirmed that his organization is currently the sole regulator of Canada's nuclear activities, and argued that there is no need for additional groups to be involved.

"We've heard about the royal commission, but feel it's unnecessary," he said. "We feel that our commission is independent as it is."

"All plants have CNSC on site staff," Gervais said. "We have inspectors (at the facility) to oversee that the operators are meeting requirements of the licence, and the Nuclear Safetey Act."

This comes as no relief to Edwards, however, who called the CNSC "more like the coach for the nuclear hockey team than a referee” who has a conflict-of-interest in its role as a safety regulator that also grants licences for nuclear power operators.

“If you go onto the CNSC website, what you’ll see is a Hollywood production, a movie with loud music proclaiming that nuclear power is safe," he said.

Edwards sees the CNSC as partial to industry, saying the commission gives the green light to virtually all applications it receives from operators. Gervais, however, said that the CNSC did reject an application in 2006 by SRB Technologies based on its lack of provision for the environment. (The license was granted in 2008 when the company reapplied with revisions to satisfy the commission.)

John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club, said that "the only example of CNSC turning something down was when they forced the closure of the Chalk River Laboratories."

In November 2008, the CNSC ordered the shutdown of a medical isotope-producing nuclear reactor at Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario over safety concerns about the emergency power system not being connected to cooling pumps, which would be required to prevent a meltdown in the event of an earthquake.

Referring to the controversial firing of then-CNSC head Linda Keen after she ordered the shutdown, Bennett said: "When the regulator actually stood up to them, the government fired that person. What kind of message does that send?"

He's also concerned that the current CNSC chef, Michael Binder, has dismissed critics of Bruce Power's recent proposal to ship decommissioned generators as "paid anti-nuclearists".

Bennett believes that there is a "human element" to the CNSC's support for nuclear energy industry. Regulators, he said, often "go to the same school, work in the same places, they go back and forth between working for AECL, the Safety Commission or Ontario Power Generation."

Media overreaction?

From the industry's viewpoint, Canadians' fears about nuclear power plants are blown out of proportion.

"I think it's fear-mongering by the media," said David Shier, president of the Canadian Nuclear Workers Council. "Canadian nuclear reactors are much safer than the ones used in Fukushima because they use heavy water, whereas the ones in Japan used boiling water" -- meaning that the reactors do not need water pumped in from the outside, as was the case in Japan.

Although seismic activity is low in Ontario, the plants in Durham have been upgraded to withstand a 6.0 magnitude earthquake. Since the earthquake in Japan, the CNSC has released frequent studies and updates about both the situation in Japan and radiation levels in Canada.

John Stewart, director of policy and research at the the Canadian Nuclear Association, said: "I know there are those who doubt the independence of the CNSC ... but our plants are also monitored by the IAEA, which is not affiliated with the nuclear energy industry."

Sources confirmed that the IAEA does indeed monitor Canadian nuclear power plants, but not necessarily to ensure the safety of the facilities.

Megan Adams, a spokesperson for Bruce Power, stated:

“The IAEA do not monitor our day-to-day operations for safety. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has staff based at our facility to perform this role. The IAEA however does inspections related to our fuel inventory … The IAEA has cameras in any areas where fuel might be handled and inspectors are on site annually at a minimum. Their role is to inspect the fuel and check our inventory against the fuel moves observed on camera.”

In Japan's case, experts have blamed alleged ties between the federal regulating body NISA for the insufficient response to the emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The regulators were found to have a long history of ignoring warnings about the plant’s malfunctioning cooling reactors, even warning Tepco of a whistleblower in 2002.

Although NISA was said to be an independent government regulator, it is now facing heavy criticism for its lack of oversight of Tepco's activities.

The dangers of radiation

One of the major areas of disconnect between the industry and its critics appears to be the opinion on the dangers of exposure to radiation.

Last month, the Pickering nuclear power plant in Ontario caused a scare when 73,000 litres of demineralized water circulating through an old fuel bay leaked into Lake Ontario. The CNSC deemed the radiological risk "negligible" to public safety and environment, and the Ontario Power Generation said it was of "no concern" for people in the surrounding area.

While opinions on the issue are divided, organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences have said there is no safe level of radiation exposure, and that all exposure increases the risk of cancer.

Stewart, meanwhile, noted that people in North America are “exposed to radiation every day" and that there is radiation in the natural environment. He added that people in certain parts of Colorado are exposed to radiation comparable to that of people living near the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Canada's nuclear future

Today, the Canadian nuclear industry is at a crossroads: Having built no new reactors for 30 years (the last one was the Darlington nuclear plant in Ontario, which began construction in 1981), the CNSC is now considering a proposal to build two new reactors at the Darlington plant in Ontario. It is also deciding whether to approve the $2-billion refurbishment of the Gentilly 2 power plant near Bécancour, Quebec.

For Edwards, the fact that the hearings are under way while the dust is still settling in Japan is a troubling sign for the future.

"The CNSC is holding two days of hearings on the Gentilly 2's license renewal, without waiting to learn about Fukushima. It's a sad state of affairs," he said.

Gervais, meanwhile, says that the CNSC is not responsible for Canada's energy policy, and that it will grant a license as long as an operator.

"The energy policy stems at the provincial level, and we don't get involved in that," he said. "If the activities are carried out in a safe manner ... it always goes back to our mandate of protecting the safety of the public, the workers and environment."

Edwards thinks it's not enough to trust the CNSC. “Now’s the time for Canadians to say, ‘Do we really want to continue bankrolling the nuclear power industry?" he said. "Taxpayers around the country are paying for a technology which is essentially an Ontario-based industry."

He said that the Canadian public should become more engaged in deciding the future of nuclear power, and create a body "concerned only with public safety" for nuclear radiation to establish a protocol for nuclear emergencies like Fukushima.

"Nuclear power is much too important to be left to the nuclear physicists and engineers," he concluded. "We need something like a royal commission inquiry to put this issue in the laps of our elected representatives and our population."


 Support Sierra Club Canada Foundation
and Receive a Charitable Tax Receipt! 

SCC Foundation - Donate Today

Sign-up and get involved...

Receive important news and action alerts!