Monday, March 14, 2011

Poor moments in Canadian nuclear oversight

Events in Japan are inevitably going to lead us to review our own nuclear facilities in Canada and the discussion is already beginning: "Fears of nuclear meltdown in Japan puts Canada's industry under scrutiny." How that discussion might develop, it's probably much too early to tell. Throw in the fact that the Harper government is presently in the process of privatizing Atomic Energy Canada Limited's reactor division. A privatized nuclear operation is something that might deserve a second look right about now. Not that anyone would expect any such move from this government.

What we might say at this point, based on recent past experience, is another thing however.

As we've watched the events unfold in Japan, we've learned how important it is for these nuclear facilities to have emergency power backup systems in place and functioning. It's been a crucial contingency that's come under the microscope. For anyone who has followed the nuclear file in Canada in recent years, it's hard not to think back to the shutdown of the Chalk River facility at the end of 2007. That shutdown occurred when it was discovered by the nuclear regulator at the end of October 2007 that emergency power backup systems were not in place. Those systems being in place were a condition of the facility's re-licensing in 2006 and Atomic Energy Canada Limited had warranted to the regulator that those systems had been put in place, along with other safety upgrades required of them. (All can be read in chronology attached to this document.)

The ensuing political brouhaha that followed ultimately led to the firing of Linda Keen, the President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. She was fired essentially because she was deemed to be too much of a stickler in holding AECL to its license requirements, i.e., that emergency power backup be in place at Chalk River. The isotope production issue was deemed to be more important at the time than the risk that something like an earthquake might happen that would require a backup power system to kick in. Jason Kenney referred to the risk as "...a paperwork problem with respect to the licensing of one part of a backup system which testimony said would only be relevant in a once-in-50,000-year seismic event..." Harper told the House of Commons that "There is no threat to nuclear safety at all." That same day, Parliament chose to adopt the Harper government's emergency bill requiring the reactor to be restarted without the backups, again, those backups being a condition of the reactor's licence. Here's a succinct editorial which fairly summarizes the issues and the politics at the time.

And if you think we're exempt from earthquakes...clearly we're not Japan geographically, but they've happened in the Chalk River region. Two occurred at the end of 2007 in fact shortly after the re-start bill was passed by the Commons.

The lesson? Listen to the nuclear regulator on safety and keep the politics out of it. It was not a great moment in nuclear oversight by our politicians, led by the Harper government who notoriously disparaged the regulator. Looking at what's going on overseas, it's hard not to think that Keen's vigilance in 2007 has been vindicated once again.