Letters from the CNSC – Fewer would be better

Imagine my dismay this summer when I found in my morning Hamilton Spectator yet another Letter to the Editor from the CNSC rebutting a letter from an anti-nuclear group.  Of course, I don’t agree with the anti-nuclear twaddle in the original letters. Rather my question is why is Canada’s nuclear regulator writing Letters to the Editor defending the nuclear industry?

Let me give you an example. In the Spectator of August 10, Michael Binder supremo of the CNSC responded to a letter from CAPE (Canadian Physicians for the Environment) dated August 7. This in turn provoked a reply from the Green Party August 11 to which Binder replied August 16 starting with the following.

 “Claims made by Hamilton Centre Green Party President Peter Ormond do nothing but perpetuate long‑standing and irrational fears too often associated with nuclear technology.”

There was nothing in CAPE’s letter concerning the CNSC or even nuclear regulation in general that might justify a response from Binder. Ormond’s letter claimed the nuclear industry is secretive not that the CNSC was. On the contrary, this whole exchange appears to be a gratuitous defence of nuclear power on the part of what’s supposed to an arms-length independent agency. Why does the CNSC feel it needs to correct “irrational fears” about nuclear technology or anything else for that matter? Psychotherapy is not in its mandate.

One reason for the CNSC response to Ormond’s letter might be a chance to take a whack at the Green Party. OK, I’m one of the few who still believe that the public service should be independent of politics even though I admit that Trudeau and Mulroney pretty much killed that idea. Read the quote again. Why not just give the guy’s name? Giving his party affiliation is unnecessarily provocative even if that’s the way Ormond signed his original letter.

The irony to me is that the original letter from CAPE that started this off is mainly a defence of wind and a diatribe against fossil fuels with only about 10% being a by-the-way shot at nuclear power – the CNSC isn’t mentioned.

There’s a school of thought in public communications that says it’s generally not a good idea to get into a Letters to the Editor exchange because it keeps a negative issue alive. This is particularly true when the initial letter is a generalized sweeping attack in contrast to one targeted at a named individual or organization.  It would have been much better for the CNSC to merely ignore the CAPE letter.

In fact, the same communications people say that the only positive function that such exchanges serve is to build the morale of those in the industry under attack. In other words it encourages employees to see someone is sticking up for them by rebutting criticism.  However, maintaining morale in the nuclear industry, another exercise in psychotherapy, is also not a CNSC function. Neither is education and hiding behind a “we’re just informing the public” pretext also doesn’t fly.

Another good guideline for organizations is that you don’t have your top banana, in this case Binder, sending Letters to the Editor. A spokesperson is a much better choice. For example, if there is an error or misstatement in the letter, it’s much less embarrassing to retract a letter from a spokesperson compared to one from the big guy. If I know about this PR stuff, it must be pretty elementary.

There are any number of other institutions and individuals in this country who could and perhaps should be responding to anti-nuclear letters and articles, among others the CNA, CNS, university institutes and faculty, consultants and nuclear industry corporations.  I’m not defending any of the anti-nuclear letters; my beef is that responding to these letters is not a role for the CNSC.

A simple answer to my question at the beginning of this piece might be that management at the CNSC, including Binder, have time to waste by penning Letters to the Editor. If so, it would be advisable for the government to look into cutting the apparent overstaffing at the CNSC. Power tripping would be another unattractive answer as would “the boss just likes to see his name in the papers”.

So what’s the big deal? The CNSC must be seen to be unbiased and independent even though in the last few years it has developed a lean toward the nuclear industry (which in my personal opinion is great.) That bias is obvious when you read through the growing file of Letters to the Editor on the CNSC website but why flaunt it? A strong independent regulator is essential for public acceptance of nuclear power. If the public perceives the CNSC is in bed with the nuclear industry then its credibility declines and hence public acceptance of nuclear power is reduced. The public is right. Poor regulation because the regulators were too cozy with the industry was identified as a contributing factor in the Fukushima accident.

In my opinion writing these letters defending the industry is unnecessary, outside its legislated mandate, and has the danger of eroding the public’s confidence in the CNSC’s independence.  This is a dumb thing the CNSC is doing.

The ACR (Advanced CANDU Reactor) is Dead

“….. It’s passed on. This reactor is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s a stiff, bereft of life, it rests in peace.  ……it should be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It’s an ex-reactor!”

Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch is so well loved that it will survive any amount of bowdlerizing by me.  It also serves very well to drive the point home that the ACR is well and truly gone. The only reason for this post is that readers of this blog still seem to have a great interest in the ACR.

It’s no exaggeration to say many in Canada’s nuclear community were relieved to see it die. It combined the worst of both the CANDU and light water reactor worlds but fortunately was only a paper concept.  In fact the general feeling in the last few years of AECL’s reactor division was that the ACR’s only value was employing the people working on it. Otherwise it was an embarrassment they didn’t know how to kill. As I predicted SNC-Lavalin did indeed throw it under the bus and its demise was unlamented except of course in human terms because of job losses. One hopes that most of those laid off were able to find other nuclear positions.

The ACR exists only on the internet and, unlike the few twitches that came after the termination of the Maple reactor program, there is no thought whatever of resuscitating it.

Ontario New Build – Treading Water

There have been developments this summer that reinforce my assessment that it will be some years before we see the new build reactors at Darlington.

The first was the statement by Ontario’s Energy Minister Chris Bentley – that’s right the half-hour plan guy mentioned earlier in this blog. The Toronto Star reported on June 8 in an article entitled “Energy minister hedges on new nuclear plant”:

“Ontario’s energy minister ducked Friday when asked whether the province intends to go ahead with building new nuclear reactors at Darlington. Chris Bentley said the province is still mulling the options of new nuclear reactors, and refused to comment directly when asked whether one option is no new reactors at all.”

The other to me even more interesting  development was the news in July that that Ontario Power Generation is paying $26 million to CANDU Energy (SNC Lavalin) and Westinghouse to develop detailed plans for the new reactors. An OPG spokesman quoted in a July 11 article in the Toronto Sun (“OPG paying $26 million for estimates on building new nuclear reactors”) said:

“This is common in large projects like this as there is recognition that firms will incur expenses in order to provide the level of detail we require”

Really – is this true? I don’t know of another case where bidders for reactor projects were paid by the purchaser to produce their bids. Perhaps, a reader can provide one? In any case my interpretation is that it hedges the Ontario government against complaints and maybe lawsuits from the bidders if the reactors are not actually built. It also puts in place a process that postpones for a two to three year period the need to make a definitive decision on going ahead with the new reactors.

What also leaps out is that there are only two bidders left. What happened to the Areva EPR? Certainly construction of the EPR in Finland has had serious cost and schedule overruns and is now enmeshed in legal and regulatory challenges. The second EPR being built in France has fared somewhat better but still has regulatory difficulties. I haven’t been able to determine how the two in China are doing but overall it seems fair to say that saying the EPR hasn’t attracted the buyers Areva expected. Westinghouse with more AP1000 sales has out-competed the EPR.  It also appears that Areva’s sales effort has shifted to their ATEMEA1 reactor and away from the EPR.  However, as usual the secrecy under which the Ontario government loves to operate and which I detest so much, prevents the public from knowing whether Areva jumped or was pushed out of the contest.

One can speculate there are many reasons that Ontario is unwilling to commit to new build although it’s hard to judge which ones are most important?  Ontario is in a serious budget crisis and is trying to reduce expenditures. Therefore, they are very reluctant to embark on a reactor building adventure that will be perceived by many as escalating the already swollen provincial debt. Since the government has a minority in the legislature in practice it would be necessary to have the support of both opposition parties; with the Conservatives in decline and the smaller socialist NDP on the rise this would be tricky. If the anti-nuclear NDP wins the next election then there would be no new built. I believe the fiscal and political issues are the main reasons but we could also add decreased public support as a result of Fukushima, the current surplus of electricity in Ontario, static or very low growth in power demand for the last decade, recent lower prices of gas fired electricity, the substantial cost and schedule overruns for the Bruce and Pt. Lepreau refurbishments, the government’s ideological commitment to renewable energy, and the credibility gap in energy planning from cancelling two gas plants under construction apparently to counter strong local NIMBY sentiments blocking the election of local government candidates.  Take your choice it could be any of the above or none of the above.

The Ontario government is now treading water on the new reactors so probably there won’t be a definite decision until after the next election.