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. “


One Response to “Poor Communications, Poor Regulation”

  1. Don Jones Says:

    It is unfortunate that the failures to communicate resulted in the fiasco it did and it certainly did not help our international reputation. What was embarrassing though was that highly qualified experienced senior nuclear engineers from the industry had to demonstrate to Parliament how inept the CNSC was, on this file at least.

    There was also failure to communicate between the industry and the public. The industry failed to point out the differences between little NRU and a power reactor. A press conference called by say the CNA, OCI or CNS with independent experts could have got the message out to the media about the true likelihood of an accident and show that even in the worst case how much radiation would be released. The CNSC did all it could to show a radiation disaster was imminent.

    Parliament was right to override the CNSC since it did not follow its mandate to limit risk to a reasonable level, instead it wanted to minimize it to an unreasonable level. Everything has risk. The CNSC’s job was to assess and manage risk and it failed to do so. It reacted inappropriately to a compliance issue that had only hypothetical risk and was not an immediate safety issue, like a cracked or leaking pipe, that would have warranted a shutdown.

    The relevant section in the Nuclear Safety and Control Act states that, “The purpose of this Act is to provide for the limitation, to a reasonable level and in a manner that is consistent with Canada’s international obligations, of the risks to national security, the health and safety of persons and the environment that are associated with the development, production and use of nuclear energy and the production, possession and use of nuclear substances, prescribed equipment and prescribed information”.

    This means that nuclear reactors should be regulated to limit risk to a “reasonable level”. There is no explicit requirement in the Act to compare risks against benefits, such as isotope production or electricity generation. However, the CNSC was overridden because it wanted to minimize risks to an unreasonable level and not because it failed to consider isotope production, which was outside its mandate, even though it is implicit in the Act otherwise why operate the reactor in the first place. The CNSC could do with lessons on “realistic conservatism” and on the relationship between safety and compliance from the nuclear regulator in the U.S.

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