Canada’s nuclear regulator gets spanked by the Federal Court

A recent Federal Court of Canada decision found that the license issued by the CNSC to construct two new reactors at Darlington was invalid because the required environmental assessment was incomplete.

First a little background might help. In 2008 the Ontario government was actively seeking to construct new reactors but hadn’t decided on what type of reactor to choose or on how many to build. Nonetheless they wanted to start environmental assessments right away and so they opted for a scheme that apparently some consultant convinced them had worked in the US.  This idea was to do a generic assessment in which the number or type of reactor to be built is not specified but based on keeping emissions to the environment, accident characteristics, and other factors within certain boundaries, later called a Plant Parameter Envelope (PPE) approach presumably to give it more technical credibility.

OPG (Ontario Power Generation) enthusiastically endorsed this concept. However, it was obvious even then that Ontario had again opted for political expediency over science.  In evidence I offer this quote from a post on this blog dated May 16, 2008:

“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. “

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) eventually took the CNSC to Federal Court after they granted a license to OPG to build two new reactors at Darlington based on a PPE-based generic environmental assessment (EA). The resulting court ruling of May 14, 2014 can be found at

http://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/fc-cf/decisions/en/item/71634/index.do

Interestingly, the Court did not find the EA to be flawed because of the PPE method per se but ruled that it failed to take into account differences in waste emissions, disposal of used fuel types and aspects of accident mitigation measures. As the Court pointed out the EA could be remade to be acceptable if it were revised to address these issues.

Like many other nuclear types this development surprised me. I suppose I’d always pictured the CNSC as all powerful in the nuclear field meaning “its word is law”.  Apparently this is not the case at all. On the contrary as this judgment shows CNSC decisions can be successfully challenged in court. Understanding what this means is well worth considering since it will have major consequences for the nuclear industry down the road.

At first sight some industry observers said the ruling didn’t matter since last October (2013) Ontario finally decided not to build any new reactors (after wasting a great deal of money and many people’s time). I think claiming this makes the ruling “moot” is a naïve reaction.

The main impact is that the Court has severely undermined the credibility of the CNSC and opens up its future licensing processes to protracted litigation. Precedent is a powerful concept in law. If you don’t believe that, just look through the ruling linked above which seems to refer to lots of what previous judges have said about EAs. From this time on important decisions of the CNSC (the significant ones involving an EA) will be questioned by law suits. The suits will probably start out by noting this ruling that effectively says the “CNSC blew an EA” with the implication it may well screw up others.  With this victory the courts have now become the new battleground for anti-nuclear groups and the only limitation I can see is how much money (or legal volunteers) these organizations have for legal work.

In recent years I have noted with dismay in this blog the CNSC’s increasing inclination to agree with most schemes proposed by OPG including the not-so-clever PPE approach. The tendency has been for them to come down full bore on small firms that use radioactive sources to show they are tough regulators but to essentially agree with anything OPG suggests however dumb presumably in a  “go along to get along” spirit. This may well be, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, because the CNSC has become the main promoter of nuclear power in Canada.  I think it’s high time the CNSC reconsider its too close relationship with OPG because this ruling in part resulted from that attitude.

Only a short time ago the federal government gave the CNSC full authority to conduct its own EAs of nuclear proposals only referring when needed to Environment Canada and other federal entities such as Fisheries and Oceans and Health Canada.  That had no sooner been done when this ruling made the CNSC look incompetent after one of its licences was bounced by the Federal Court because of a bungled EA.

To be slapped down by the Federal Court constitutes a severe embarrassment to the CNSC, itself a quasi-judicial federal tribunal.  I believe it’s time for far-reaching reforms at the Commission including a weeding out of its senior management.

 

One Response to “Canada’s nuclear regulator gets spanked by the Federal Court”


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