An urgent need to discuss Canada’s nuclear technology choices

Canada is on the verge of making multibillion dollar investments in new nuclear technology. These decisions will have consequences lasting for many decades into the future. Nevertheless, there is no forum for open informed technical discussion of the critical choices that will be made in the next year or two.  The purpose of this blog is to provide such a forum.

In Ontario an RFP was issued on March 7, 2008 for vendors to provide two new reactors plus perhaps one or two more.  It explicitly forbids reactor vendors and anyone associated with them (pretty much everyone with any nuclear expertise) from discussing the new reactors in public. In other words the Ontario government has stated that it wants no public discussion of reactor choices.

The incident that outraged many in the nuclear community and gave me the push to start this blog was the Ontario government handling of a meeting organized by the Association of Polish Engineers in Canada on March 27, 2008 in Toronto. This meeting was intended as a public information session at which the four reactor vendors could briefly present the essential features of their designs and a general discussion could ensure.  Interest was high; about 300 were expected to attend the event that had been planned for some six months. Nevertheless, Infrastructure Ontario prohibited the vendors from participating although I understand that some people from Westinghouse to their credit did attend in the end.  The Ontario government’s bid to close down this meeting was in the opinion of many including me both unacceptable and inappropriate. 

Ontario invoked “commercial confidentiality” (similar in effect to “national security” or “privacy rights”) as their justification for restricting information citizens need to make informed choices on these complex issues.  “Fairness” to the vendors is their highest priority but their behaviour in this incident indicates transparency must be their lowest. 

While the Ontario approach consists of secret negotiations with no public input, it appears that the processes for the new reactor proposed for New Brunswick and the reactors for Alberta and perhaps Saskatchewan are more transparent and will be covered in future postings. 

Generic environmental assessments of the new Ontario reactors to be located at the existing Bruce Power and Darlington nuclear sites are being organized.  The value of these assessments is questionable when the number and type of the reactors to be considered is unspecified. However, in an even more bizarre turn of events initial indications are that these reviews will be conducted by commissioners of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) who will in effect be reviewing their own licensing process.

Although it has not yet been announced, we may safely assume the environmental assessments will include “public consultations” of the sort staged for public relations purposes. Unfortunately, in the past such events have mainly consisted of diatribes by proponents and opponents of nuclear power generating much heat but little light. They don’t really help.

Up to now, the media coverage of these critical decisions is sporadic with little in the way of substantive discussion.  Blogs are a new type of media that I hope will remedy this deficiency.

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