Poor Communications, Poor Regulation

“What we have here is a failure to communicate”

I was depressed by reading the report by Talisman Consulting about the NRU shutdown debacle.  As you will recall there was a test of wills between AECL and CNSC last autumn that resulted in the shutdown of NRU, a resulting medical isotope shortage and a Parliamentary intervention to put NRU back on line. Talisman consulting was asked to look into what happened. The gist of the report is that communications were poor at every level inside AECL and the CNSC and between the two organizations.

For example, it recounts how both AECL and CNSC staff were talking knowledgeably about the “licensing basis”, a term it turns out is completely undefined. The picture I get of people solemnly faking expertise  about matters they don’t understand is really unedifying and, of course, ultimately dangerous.

Remember that the reactor being regulated when these problems arose was NRU which is in its sixth decade and has been licensed by the CNSC and its predecessor the AECB from its beginnings. If they can’t get it right for NRU, how can we expect the CNSC to regulate the LWR’s that may be selected for construction in Ontario? These reactors are completely outside their experience.

Some people view Parliament’s overriding the CNSC process to bring NRU back in operation was a “victory” for the nuclear industry.  Personalities aside, this is just foolish. Any loss of regulatory authority, even psychological as the loss of face suffered by the CNSC in this incident, is a net loss for the nuclear industry.  

The industry is always one accident away from being again relegated to the shadows. Like other nuclear advocates, I believe effective regulation is absolutely essential.  

Two quotations from an article on nuclear regulation that the late John de la Mothe and I wrote in 2001 (in Canadian Nuclear Energy Policy, University of Toronto Press, ed. G.B. Doern, et al.) seem particularly apt commentary.

Public perceptions and expectations of regulation are very important in the sense that nuclear activities must not only be safe but also must be seen to be safe.”

“The Canadian public, and thus, their governments, will not tolerate the operation of nuclear power plants if there is a widely held perception that regulation is not working. “