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

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.


Premier of Ontario Resigns – Nuclear Fallout

On Oct. 15 Dalton McGuinty announced he will resign as Premier when a successor is chosen, presumably so he can spend more time lying to his family.

 McGuinty’s departure could well have serious consequences for nuclear power in Ontario.

For those who don’t know him, McGuinty is almost a dead ringer for the Norman Bates title character in the classic Hitchcock movie Psycho. I can recall watching it in a Halifax movie theatre around 1960 as part of a group of navy cadets. We thought we were really macho but Psycho scared the crap out of us. That made me leery of McGuinty from the beginning and as it turned out I was right.

For some nine years he presided over an incompetent and scandal-ridden government shrouded in secrecy. Fittingly the last straw was the expensive cancellation of two gas powered generation plants under construction that McGuinty admitted was to ensure the election of members of his party in constituencies surrounding the plants. This was too much for even a passive public to take. The provincial parliament forced the release of some 56,000 pages of hitherto secret documents on the gas plants which apparently paint a dismal picture of government manipulations.

Unfortunately nothing was released concerning the government’s nuclear activities or its renewable energy policies. There were rumours of energy decisions made by a strange bag of motley types: a particularly strident renewables maven, a German energy Munchausen, a cabinet minister with only a fragile attachment to reality, and blowhard industry executives who successfully insisted on secret deals claimed necessary not to impair their competitive positions. Enormous mistakes were made in terms of granting absurdly long-term contracts, sole source contracts, defying the World Trade Organization to  force green energy jobs in Ontario, and ironically ignoring the input of the bloated multiple-agency energy bureaucracy they had set up which merely became grazing grounds for overpaid bureaucrats and consultants.   Energy is a real mess in Ontario.

So what will happen now? The least negative outcome is an even longer delay in starting construction of the new build reactors. The worst result is a decision to drop them altogether and perhaps postpone/cancel the refurbishment of Darlington. Assuming McGuinty’s party will be defeated in the election likely next year neither of the other parties is particularly keen on nuclear power. The NDP has long opposed it on ideological grounds but the big surprise is that the PC party, up until now a traditional supporter of nuclear power, has recanted and is now talking about importing hydroelectricity from neighboring provinces instead of more nuclear.

Overlaying the gloomy political picture are increasing qualms in the business community about the economics of nuclear particularly when compared to natural gas. This coupled with the complete inability of the nuclear industry to finish projects within a factor of two of the original budget and schedule is creating doubts in influential circles. The decision not to refurbish Gentilly is a recent example of where these perceptions lead.  It’s not so much McGuinty’s departure itself that will be the problem but unfortunately the precipitation of factors already out there occasioned by it may well result in a new negative attitude toward nuclear power on the part of decision makers.   I’m afraid the future of nuclear power in Ontario (and that essentially means Canada) is looking very grim indeed.

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.

More Glory Days for Chalk River?

For reasons that don’t matter now I was prompted to think about what will happen to the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) while on a cruise ship passing Devil’s Island.  Unlike that place I have fond memories of CRL.

When I arrived in 1968 CRL was still in its Glory Days.  Many excellent scientific programs continued notably at the NRU reactor and much engineering R&D was done in support of the newly hatched CANDU reactor concept. CRL scientists and engineers were very active in the governance of Canada’s learned societies and were prominent at national and international conferences. CRL was recognized as an incubator of highly qualified personnel and many left to become university faculty.

At that time W.B. Lewis, the father of the CANDU reactor, was promoting the ING project at CRL. ING was to be a giant accelerator producing the large neutron flux necessary to make fissile fuel to top up the thermal breeder capabilities of CANDU. The idea was that ING supporting a fleet of CANDU’s would eliminate the possibility that running out of the then known uranium resources would thwart the great expansion of nuclear power envisaged by Lewis and many others. ING was cancelled by Pierre Trudeau when he came to power that same year. It is arguable whether ING could ever have been made to work but in retrospect the cancellation of ING took away the last future vision for CRL.

When I left in 1996 the decline of CRL was reaching its climax in a process of decay that had started in the mid 1960’s. The steady erosion over the foregoing years culminated in the cancellation or transfer of the best scientific programs under the government program review process of that era.  A dismal succession of weak and ineffectual leaders tried to preserve the labs through dubious commercialization  schemes and strived to eliminate “curiosity oriented research” because they thought it was what the government wanted them to do. The problem was that most of the management simply didn’t understand how the Ottawa bureaucracy worked and those who did understand didn’t stick around enough to make a difference.

Of course the CRL site cannot be closed.  We’ve made such a mess we couldn’t possibly leave it in its current state.   Decommissioning and cleanup activities will go on decades if not centuries and it remains the main site for Canada’s medical and industrial radioactive wastes.

Everyone (except maybe the federal government) has concluded that the only thing that will restore CRL to its former glory is a new world class research reactor to replace NRU.  National laboratories in other countries have thrived on excellent new facilities. The SNS at Oak Ridge, the NIF at Lawrence Livermore, and the Jules Horowitz reactor at Cadarache are recent examples of facilities that have given new purpose to their host national laboratories.

To sell a new reactor it must have a meaningful and nationally important R&D program. The NRU reactor closure scheduled for 2016 will mark the end of isotope production and associated R&D.   Neutron scattering would attract scientists in that field but it’s a relatively small community.  With the Advanced CANDU Reactor thankfully now cancelled there isn’t likely to be much in the way of reactor development going on with the exception of perhaps some EC6 fuel tests and a bit of thorium research.

My own assessment is there is unlikely to be any further significant development of the CANDU concept and more sales of CANDU offshore are improbable. I can’t see any use for a new reactor to support the refurbishment projects now the heart of our nuclear industry. In the last decade or so an increasing nuclear research capability has been developed in Canadian universities and recent events in Saskatchewan for instance show that this trend will continue.  Therefore, if you need people doing R&D at computer screens you don’t need to do it at CRL.  It’s not clear to me what could be done at a new research reactor to justify the large expense in building it.

As for management, some have suggested that a private company could better manage CRL along the same lines as the US national labs. I don’t see that hiring a private company to manage it would contribute much since the strategic vision needs to come from within the government.

My solution would be to return CRL to the National Research Council of Canada (NRCC) fold from which it emerged in its earliest days. I admire NRCC management for skillfully keeping their organization viable and at times thriving for what must now be getting on for a century. They have proven expert at navigating through the shoals of government bureaucracy and they understand the value of R&D and even know how to sell curiosity oriented research to the government. Moving CRL to NRCC is not such a radical solution. The neutron scattering group at CRL has been run by NRCC since the 1990’s and NRCC has even been promoting the need for a new research reactor.

I do hope solutions can be found because there is nothing I’d like to see more than return of CRL to its Glory Days.

The nuclear renaissance – a long time coming

This is the main message of the “The Future of Nuclear Energy to 2030 and Its Implications for Safety, Security and Non-proliferation: Overview” of the CIGI Nuclear Energy Futures Project by Trevor Findlay.

I introduced CIGI in a previous post “Nuclear Policy and the Phoenix Coyotes”. This project has taken some three to four years and as a minor participant I can testify to the project’s objectivity and thoroughness. CIGI is by no means antinuclear and in my opinion the report accurately reflects the true state of nuclear energy today.  

In addition to a variety of useful data collected by the project, the report contains an objective assessment of the barriers facing the expansion of nuclear power. The resulting conclusion is that few additional nuclear plants will be built before 2030.

This, the overview of the Nuclear Energy Futures Project final reports, should be required reading for all those interested in nuclear energy. Clearly, the Canadian media have taken it seriously. Even more important for the future of Canada’s nuclear industry is that this report will influence the politicians and officials dealing with the domestic nuclear file.

I would suggest Trevor Findlay be invited to present his findings at the Canadian Nuclear Society Annual Conference in Montreal this June. I would also like to see him address the Canadian Nuclear Association seminar in Ottawa later this month but that’s unlikely since only “preaching to the choir” is allowed at the seminars.

If we don’t understand the problems, we won’t be able to develop the solutions  

Posted in Policy. 4 Comments »

Nuclear Policy and the Phoenix Coyotes

These topics are linked as two of the many interests of Jim Balsillie, RIM Co-CEO and philanthropist.


He founded the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) by contributing substantial startup funding followed by another large donation by RIM’s other Co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis.  The Federal and Ontario governments have also granted significant funds as have other organizations and individuals. 


CIGI is a think tank with the overall objective of improving governance by several means and their web site highlights their many interests and activities


The relevance of GIGI to the topic of this blog is the Nuclear Energy Futures Project, quoting from their website. “CIGI’s Nuclear Energy Futures Project is being conducted in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC) at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, Ottawa. The aim of the project is to investigate the implications of the so-called renaissance for nuclear safety, security and nonproliferation over the coming two decades and to make recommendations for consideration by the international community.”


The project is directed by Louise Fréchette, a former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, who has had a long involvement in matters nuclear.


The Nuclear Futures Project has already produced some 8 reports. Ken Dormuth and I wrote the one on enrichment and so I have some bias. Be that as it may, I believe that the CIGI reports have already had an impact on the formation of Canadian nuclear policy and that they have influenced decision makers.  However, I’ve not seen any sign of discussion of CIGI’s work among the usual players in the nuclear industry. It deserves more attention than it has received.


The latest report in the CIGI series “Canadian Nuclear Industry Status and Prospects” ought to be interesting for readers of this blog.


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Ontario’s Nuclear Workers have Nothing to Fear

It’s been reported that on February 21 about 100 boxes of bid documents for the great Ontario reactor circus were submitted by the reactor vendors. They were boxes of paper but in the present economic and political climate they may as well be boxes of bricks or radiator parts since the decision must reflect the current realities.


Ontario’s cohort of highly qualified nuclear scientists and engineers are the pawns in this process and no doubt it’s causing them anxiety. Having been through uncertainty about the future a few times myself I can well appreciate their feelings.  The situation isn’t helped by the sucking and blowing of nuclear industry Pooh-Bahs doing the Chicken Little routine about how the sky will fall if AECL doesn’t win. It may be that their own jobs would be in jeopardy in that event but not the jobs of those with technical expertise.  


Political reality says the AECL ACR is likely to win. No matter how long they continue to drag their feet on the decision, as the recession deepens it’s increasingly difficult for the Ontario government to do anything other than accept the bid of the local guys.  The politicians can’t afford to get in the same sort box that the government lottery company got into by selecting Mercedes Benz cars as prizes at a time when the car industry is in such great trouble in Ontario.  Selecting the ACR also puts off the expenditure of real money by the provincial government until at least 2012 when the details of the ACR will be firmed up. In the meantime the feds will be funding the completion of the design. Even better, the current provincial government would likely be out of office and another government would have to deal with any downstream consequences of this choice.


Suppose the ACR doesn’t win. At “worst” our nuclear people might end up working for one or the other of two world-class multinational nuclear companies: AREVA or Westinghouse. Both already have several orders for their reactors in other countries. It’s easy to see where the winning company would get the nuclear people they need to build their reactors in Canada. Of course, the inevitable next step for the winner would be to buy the assets of AECL, the main one being its highly skilled work force.  Current employees would likely end up with higher pay, better leadership and literally a world of opportunity from which to choose their future.


Skilled nuclear workers have nothing to fear.  The very fact that two reactors of some type will be built in Ontario and maybe others elsewhere in the country is sufficient to ensure their future for decades to come. This even without taking into account the 10’s of billions of dollars worth of refurbishment work slated for the existing CANDU reactors. There is no need to be concerned. The employment future is bright for Ontario’s nuclear workers whatever the outcome of the competition.




Posted in Policy. 8 Comments »

No Nuclear Renaissance in a Recession?

What effect will today’s bad economy have on the nuclear renaissance?

As I see it, any Canadian politician that wants to fund a nuclear Megaproject (actually Gigaproject) in a time of severe recession is going to have a very tough time selling it as part of an economic stimulus package. Rhetoric about ‘building for the future’ or ‘just carrying out plans already made” simply isn’t going to cut it with the public.  Of course, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam are examples of massive US energy projects built during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. However, I think the public perception of nuclear reactors is very different; they don’t have the same image as hard core infrastructure projects that employ large numbers of people. Roads, bridges, water mains, parks, public transit and so forth directly relate much more closely to people’s lives and thus, are a “politically better” use of the large but limited construction capacity in the province.

In Ontario, a multi-billion dollar nuclear project at Darlington doesn’t have the same political attraction as many smaller infrastructure projects spread all the province. Additional new reactors at Bruce and Nanticoke would increase the total costs to the province so much as to counteract any benefits they might bring in terms of geographical spread. The timing of that idea wouldn’t work in any case since these projects are not likely to begin until well after the new Darlington reactors. One could try to spin a single project at Darlington by correctly pointing out that many components would be built in other areas and in many ways the project benefits the whole province.  Nevertheless, justifying the construction of even two new reactors at a total of $10-15 billion would be a very hard sell when compared to the $1.3 billion provincial contribution to the recent Big Three automotive bail out. In fact, the optics is so bad that I doubt any smart politician would even attempt it in a failing economy.

In Alberta the precipitous drop in the price of oil has knocked the bottom out of any idea of building reactors there. The huge oil sands projects that would be very profitable with oil at $140 a barrel are marginal at $40 a barrel and the overheated Alberta economy is cooling fast. I very much doubt that Alberta politicians are going to push new reactors as a cure to the province’s economic problems. My guess is the thinking in Saskatchewan would be similar.

New Brunswick is the exception. We can only assume that news of the recession hasn’t reached there. Recently, the government announced they were going to build not one but two new reactors (ACR-1000s?) A mode of bullish optimism prevails (‘I’ll have what he’s having”) It is said that the new reactors will supply the New England electricity market assumed to be expanding in spite of the current US economic problems. However, as far as I know, the studies (one of them from AECL) justifying this strategy have never seen the public light of day and therefore, we don’t know what the provincial government is really thinking. I suppose New Brunswick is also assuming that the federal government via AECL will back stop the large cost overruns inevitable on first-of-a kind projects.  The feds, however, are already unhappy about running a deficit and I frankly can’t see them being any happier in absorbing New Brunswick’s cost overruns. Of course, if the feds agreed to that , they’d also have to do it for Ontario’s reactor overruns.

My fearless but realistic prediction is that the nuclear industry like every other will have to hunker down and ride out the storm until the economy improves. Certainly routine activities will continue at a dull roar probably including some refurbishment but I can’t see any new-build Gigaproject start-ups. In other words, the nuclear renaissance will be on hold during the years of the recession/depression the world is now experiencing.  Let’s hope for everyone’s sake it will be a short downturn.