Intervenors at the Darlington Hearings

As one would expect the quality of the submissions and presentations was mixed. I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of some of the intervenors against the project. On both sides, pro and con, there was a wide variety in the presentations and those giving them: a professional actor and a radio producer, an MP and an MPP, a former Ontario Minister of Energy, feather waving first nations types, academics from at least six universities, and computer experts gave performances with and without props , slide shows some with high quality graphics and above all impassioned speeches.
I thought a few interventions were very entertaining but many more were pure drudgery to listen to. Fortunately I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t have had the patience or the cast iron derriere needed to sit through it all. However, I did wade through all the written stuff and watched all the videos.
Certainly, many of the anti-project interventions were merely pleas to stop it professing no doubt sincere concerns for children and grandchildren. If I had been present my reaction would have been that children are a big part of the world’s environmental problems. There are too many of them and the best thing those presenters could do for the environment would be to stop having them. But that just shows my political incorrectness.
Even the generalized anti-nuclear presentations were for the most part were delivered with passion and sincerity. They shouldn’t be ignored. We scientists and engineers tend to discount emotion but humans often make decisions on that basis. It’s like trying to convince someone to love you. No amount of rational argument will work when the other person simply doesn’t like you. It’s an emotional issue as is nuclear power. There is no exaggeration in saying that a significant segment of Canadians, perhaps a quarter to a third, regard the nuclear industry with fear and loathing. At the very least these presentations serve to remind us of this unpleasant truth.
I don’t want to trivialize the arguments against Darlington refurbishment. Some were well researched, argued and presented points that deserve serious attention. I’ll get to the topics raised in subsequent posts in this series.
Relevance was another matter. For example, many strongly preferred green energy sources to nuclear power. This was one reason why some urged a full Panel environmental assessment (EA) rather the Screening EA being done here. Their idea was that a Panel review could be empowered to look at alternatives, that is could we do something other than the Darlington refurbishment that would have less effect on the environment? However, changes to EA regulations in a recent federal act essentially would kick the Panel review back to CNSC and so accomplish nothing especially since the Commission has no mandate or ability to look at anything other than nuclear technology. Decisions on electricity generation are a matter for the provinces, Ontario in this case, and not of the federal government represented by CNSC.
However, revision of the Nuclear Liability Act of 1985 to include a higher payout limit is a federal mandate. The Act has many legal advantages such as shifting absolute liability to the nuclear operator and lets suppliers and contractors off the hook. The present liability limit of $75 million is low but bills (at least four of them) to raise the limit to $650 million (latest bill) have been allowed to lapse without a vote in Parliament. Apparently the higher limit is derived more from the carrying capacity of the domestic insurance market than from any realistic assessment of potential damages. Much was made of this by intervenors but no one argues that $650 million would be even close to the cost of recovery from a catastrophic nuclear accident. All a revised Act would do is to make OPG and other nuclear operators pay higher premiums for the higher coverage which is probably why it hasn’t passed. In my opinion the Act makes no difference one way or the other to the nuclear discussion and thus, is not relevant.

The Darlington Hearings

The December 3-6, 2012 CNSC hearings on the future of the Darlington nuclear station provided an occasion to assess the major issues concerning the nuclear power industry in Ontario.

The public hearings held by the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) were on three applications by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) all mashed together:
-Environmental Assessment on the Proposed Refurbishment of all four Reactors
-Application for renewal of the licences for the Darlington Waste Management Facility
-Renewal of the Nuclear Power Reactor Operating Licence until Refurbishment starts

As a long time nuclear type, I found this material of great interest in terms of the current health and status of the nuclear industry also as a showcase of both on-going issues and the emergence of new ones.

Among others, major issues that came up were evacuation, monitoring, nuclear safety assessment, software integrity, fish destruction, project costs and energy alternatives to Darlington. I intend to discuss these issues and others in separate posts. Novel (at least new to me) arguments were also made in some areas.

There is a very large amount of information and data available on the matters discussed some on the CNSC website, some on OPG websites and some elsewhere. The written submissions for these particular hearings can be obtained directly from the CNSC. I requested and received from the CNSC a complete set of the written submissions for which I’m grateful. Video of the sessions is on the CNSC site. The videos can be found at
http://nuclearsafety.gc.ca/eng/commission/webcasts/2012/december-3-4-5-6-2012-commission-public-hearing.cfm

There was lots of repetition in the way particular topics were covered. Some raised issues already covered previously by others prompting questions from the commission such as “Were you here this morning when this was discussed at length?” Invariably the answers were negative and a rehash of past discussions was the result. I thought this would be tedious and irritating but it turned out to be interesting since the repeat answers given by OPG and Commission often varied somewhat from those first put forth. My observation was that CNSC and OPG staff were not often capable of making explanations that the public could understand.

Availability is not the same as accessibility and many of the groups and individuals appearing before the Commission complained that they couldn’t find the information they needed. Answers varied from the unhelpful type “it’s on the shelf above the toilet in the powder room” to “we’ll send you the link”. It is clear that there should be some sort of master index available to the public to facilitate participation in CNSC processes. This needs to be corrected.

At the beginning of this series I should declare that my own bias is that the Darlington refurbishment is important to the survival of Canada’s nuclear industry. There has to be a meaningful level of nuclear activity to preserve individual skills and industrial capability until new reactors are built. The latter may be a long time in the future and Darlington refurbishment should last for at least ten years and so to some extent bridge the gap. Without it there is a real danger the capability we now have will dissipate and the nuclear option will close for Canada.

I’m also willing to admit that as green technology evolves and the experiences of countries such as Germany now trying to get out of nuclear are tallied it may turn out that the nuclear option is not as necessary as it is now. Until that time, perhaps a decade or two from now, I would strongly argue that we need to keep it.