Let’s have the nuclear pill at last

Acknowledging the need for easy public access to potassium iodide (KI) pills is a further acceptance of the reality that nuclear accidents could happen in Canada.

Until the Fukushima accident the policy of Canada’s nuclear industry to KI pills was that they shouldn’t be distributed to populations near reactors because it might unnecessarily alarm people and give credence to charges that nuclear power was dangerous.  Similar opinions were held on alerting siren systems, online real time radiation data, evacuation rehearsals, and other accident mitigation measures, all then regarded as talking points for ant-nuclear critics. Thankfully, these opinions of the DOUGS (Dumb Old Utility Guys) had been fading since the Chernobyl accident and have basically disappeared since Fukushima.

We need to understand what KI pills are and what they do.  The thyroid gland in the neck regulates many important functions of our bodies such as “how quickly the body uses energy, makes proteins, and controls how sensitive the body is to other hormones” (quote from Wikipedia).    To function properly, the thyroid needs iodine which is taken up from various food sources or, in places where sufficient iodine isn’t available in the local diet, from iodized table salt. Not surprisingly adequate iodine is also essential for the normal intellectual development of children.The iodizing of salt by adding compounds such as KI to it has proved a very cheap and effective public health measure in most countries of the world.

In a nuclear accident radioactive iodine is released as a gas which can readily be inhaled and so taken up in the thyroid and then can eventually cause thyroid cancer especially in children. By taking KI pills you can load up your thyroid with harmless (non-radioactive) iodine so when exposed to the radioactive type your already iodine-saturated thyroid won’t absorb it. For this to work you need to take the KI pill before any significant release of reactor iodine gets to you. This means you have to have pills on hand and ready to use as soon as you know an accident is happening.

KI pills are very good for protecting thyroids and preventing thyroid cancer in children – both very worthy objectives.  However, they should not be viewed as a preventative or a cure-all for all types of radiation sickness as some uninformed people believe.

KI pills should be distributed to all homes within, say a 20 km radius, of reactors. Not as has been the case for example at Pickering where in a compromise scheme KI pills were stock piled in drugstores. Presumably, you go to your local pharmacy in case of a nuclear accident. There were also pills at local schools but I suppose if there were an accident outside of school hours you have to send your kids to the drugstore. Not only should the pills be in homes but there must also be an effective warning system that tells people living near reactors to take their KI pills.

The regulator and our nuclear utilities are finally considering doing exactly that after knowing since the 1950’s that it was feasible and done in other countries. There can be no excuse for any more foot dragging in providing KI pills to homes around Canadian reactors.

The Pickering hearings – some last comments on evacuation, GE-Hitachi and Orangeville

The treatment of PSA (Probabilistic Safety Assessment) was much better at the Pickering hearings than at the Darlington hearings of last December. In earlier posts I criticized the cavalier way that OPG and CNSC staff tossed around PSA probabilities as representing accident probabilities. I’m happy to say that there was much less of that this time. There was still confusion about limits, goals, objectives and other associated terminology but I had the impression that the problems were more in communications than in fact. I was also heartened to hear CNSC staff acknowledge that unknown unknowns (Black Swans) were the main lesson of Fukushima – “expect the unexpected”. Being a very conservative organization OPG still tends to cling to the dubious use of PSA (or PRA) for overall accident frequency prediction over and above its legitimate value in organizing and focusing safety related issues.

Evacuation plans were taken seriously at these hearings. Six months earlier at the Darlington hearings the fundamental questions concerned the existence of a plan and who was in charge. At the Pickering hearings much credit should go to intervenors from the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) who presented detailed work they had done on evacuation issues. This was useful and contributed both to the hearing process and also on focusing those responsible for detailed planning on the nuclear aspects. Emergency plans are now designed to accommodate generic accidents of all types but there will be problems specific to nuclear emergencies that might not be covered. There was significant drilling down into specific aspects such as the distribution of KI pills, traffic patterns in terms of radioactive deposition, and suitability of building types for sheltering from radioactivity. The latter are issues specific to nuclear accidents and currently not well covered in the broader plans of the various emergency organizations.

Because the Pickering reactors are about 30 km from downtown Toronto this topic was very sobering indeed. A highlight of the hearings for me was an intervention by a person who talked about her experiences as an evacuee during hurricane Hugo in 1989. This put a human face on what might otherwise be considered a theoretical discussion. The consequences of a “doomsday” type accident at Pickering would be unthinkable and I believe most people both within and outside the nuclear industry would agree that it’s time to close down the Pickering reactors. The only issue is when.

In contrast to these worthwhile interventions, a few intervenors complained about the GE-Hitachi nuclear fuel operation in Toronto. Aside from being largely irrelevant to the topic of the hearings, it seemed silly to complain about it. First of all, the facility is completely benign and thoroughly inspected with negligible possibility of any accident. Second, it’s been there for about fifty years and anyone moving in since then who objects to it clearly didn’t do their due diligence in discovering its existence before they bought houses in the area. Boiled down they are essentially admitting that they, their real estate agents and lawyers were asleep when they bought. It’s like those people who move in near an airport and then whine about the noise. These intervenors not only are complaining about a non-existent danger but also by doing so they lower neighborhood property values including their own. In my opinion this is just dumb and I have no patience with them.

Arnie Gundersen, former reactor operator turned prominent US anti-nuke, provided comic relief as he argued in a genial way against granting a renewal. He made disparaging comments about CANDU reactors being “an evolutionary dead end” meaning that with the ACR-1000 dead there will not be any more new versions of CANDU after the EC tweak of the CANDU 6. He’s probably correct but it’s still not easy to hear. His main point was that the Pickering reactors were among the oldest still operating in the world. True Pickering units 1 and 4 started in 1971 and 1973 but he was still wrong. They were refurbished (twice for unit 1) and returned to service in 2005 and 2003 respectively and thus, are in better shape than units 5 to 8 which came on line 1983-6 but have not been refurbished.

The fact that a waste disposal site will be needed to store the large volume of radioactive non-fuel bits and pieces arising from refurbishing and later decommissioning Ontario’s reactors was is not a surprise but the ham-fisted way it came out at the Pickering hearings certainly was a surprise. Someone, I believe in an OPG document, casually opined that this site should ideally be equidistant from the reactor stations and just by looking at a map came up with a site near Orangeville. If you don’t believe in coincidences, that town used to be (still is?) the location of an Ontario Hydro training facility and maybe OPG has some land available there for a waste site. Therefore, I would tend to ignore any subsequent back pedalling on this site by OPG.

What a way to introduce Ontario’s third nuclear waste storage site! I assume it would probably be a DGR (Deep Geological Repository). The first waste site is a DGR now under study by a CNSC-appointed committee. In it OPG will bury low and intermediate level waste from reactor operations at the Bruce site. The reason for the location is simply that the Bruce power station was located on Lake Huron for reactor cooling water and OPG owns a lot of land there (now leased by Bruce Power) at an approved nuclear site. Geological justifications were later found to fit these business considerations. Originally OPG planned to build this DGR under the lake but many in Canada and the US got very excited about potential radioactive contamination of the Great Lakes – the source of drinking water for 40 million people. Now they plan to build it near but not under the lake.

The second nuclear waste site is the long-term DGR for high level used nuclear fuel that some communities around Bruce among others in Canada have expressed preliminary interest in hosting. Once again this has provoked the contamination of the Great Lakes issue. Predictably the two DGRs are being confused deliberately by critics pushing the idea that the first will become the second. With Orangeville on the table, it now appears we have three DGRs in play.

I had thought that Bruce Power’s inept handling of its plan to ship contaminated steam generators for recycling was the leading nuclear waste public relations fiasco in the past few years. However, I’ve changed my mind. The casual Orangeville site reveal by OPG at the Pickering hearings was bungling at an even greater level turning Canada’s nuclear waste disposal efforts into a true three ring circus.

Pushing the Limits of CANDU Pressure Tubes

The basic issue at the Pickering hearings was the request of OPG to operate the four Pickering B reactors beyond the previously assumed lifetime of their pressure tubes. The lifetime was set in the past to be 210,000 hours (more accurately Effective Full Power Hours) and running Pickering B to 2018/2020 would according to OPG push the lifetime to 247,000 hours. With 8,760 hour/year and a capacity factor of 0.8 we get roughly 7,200 hour/year. At this rate 216,000 hours is about 30 years and 37,000 more hours amounts to an extra 5 years. With the exception of reactor number 8 which will reach the limit around 2015, it looks to me that the other three Pickering B reactors will be at the 210,000 hour limit in 2014.

This issue has wider implications and indeed could be the most critical issue for Canada’s CANDU program. For example, the six Bruce Power reactors will need refurbishment soon if the resources are available. Once again rough calculations indicate that some of them are already within a year or two of 210,000 hours in part due to their very high capacity factors in recent years. So what will the CNSC do when confronted with the same issue at Bruce? Cancelling the Bruce licenses just isn’t feasible and so one can safely assume that sometime in the period 2014-15 we will see ten reactors (four Pickering B, two Bruce A and four Bruce B) all operating with pressure tubes past the 210,000 hours mark.

It is already well-known and observed phenomenon that CANDU pressure tubes deform as they age. This is due to an effect known as radiation-induced ‘creep’, the latter meaning the metal becomes like a very slow flowing plastic driven by the heat generated by fission in the uranium fuel. An American colleague of mine used to call CANDU reactors “the world’s largest creep experiments”. Creep arises on the atomic level from the displacement of metal atoms by high energy neutrons (before they are slowed down by the moderator) and by the embedding (ingress) of hydrogen isotope atoms in the metal forming hydrides which further degrade the metal’s macroscopic properties.

In operating CANDUs various measures are taken to control the dimensional changes of the aging pressure tubes, for example, the ends of expanding tubes may be selectively clamped to encourage uniform growth in both directions. The tubes also sag and swell as they age changing the geometry of the nuclear assembly thus affecting both its thermal and neutronic aspects. How much of this degradation a reactor can take before it becomes unsafe to operate? This is a very complex issue and a great deal of R&D has been done on this subject since the inception of the CANDU concept. The reason was that in order for a natural uranium/heavy water reactor to work (achieve criticality) its metal structure has to be minimized to avoid excessive neutron losses. Therefore, the pressure tubes had to be thin and it was acknowledged from the outset that creep would be a problem in CANDUs.

The history of CANDU pressure tubes was bumpy at the beginning. In 1974 leaks were discovered near the rolled end joints in some tubes in Pickering A reactors. This problem was attributed to delayed hydride cracking which arose from how the joints had been fabricated and was corrected by replacing the faulty tubes. In August of 1983, a pressure tube ruptured in Pickering A reactor number 2, some twelve years after it began operation. There was no leak-before-break in this case which caused dismay since it was always touted as a safety feature. This failure was attributed to friction damage caused by spacers around the tube and also to the alloy the tube was made from. This accident required the re-tubing of first two Pickering A reactors with tubes made of a better alloy. (AECL also lost the royalty it had on the electricity produced which was the start of its unremitting financial woes.) This event resulted in even more R&D on pressure tube degradation from which a target limit of 210,000 hours was set.

So what has happened to change this limit? What is the scientific basis for extending the lifetime of the pressure tubes? To me this is the critical question. In the first place it is reassuring that not much negative has happened in the pressure tube field for many years which would indicate that at least 210,000 hours is a reasonable limit. However, in my opinion OPG hasn’t done a very good job of informing the public of the science behind their request to go to 247,000 hours. The Pickering hearing transcript offers little in the way of evidence that a change is justified. OPG talked about a research program started in 2009 that produced some eighteen reports submitted to the CNSC. I haven’t been able to find copies of these reports on the CNSC or OPG website. Comments made about this program at the hearings didn’t convince me of its validity.

More significantly I can’t find any mention of this work in international journals such as the Journal of Nuclear Materials or Metal Physics. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places? A result with such high impact on reactor operation and safety should be peer reviewed by refereeing for publication in a high quality publication and preferably presented at widely attended international conferences. To me it is ironic that the CNSC stressed the need for peer reviewed publication of the epidemiology work showing no increased cancers near nuclear stations but not for the pressure tube program, the main topic of the hearings. By peer review I don’t mean sending the results to a few foreign experts for their opinion – this isn’t anything like proper peer review. I’m afraid that the CNSC too often does that because it buys into the nuclear industry’s unhealthy obsession about propriety information to the detriment of any realistic quality control over the science involved.

In the final analysis it boils down to the old British expression “suck and see” meaning inspections at reactor outages to see how the tubes are doing; the reactors have indeed become “creep experiments”. Sudden (without leak-before-break) failure of any one pressure tube could be handled by the existing safety systems as the 1983 accident showed. I suspect that’s the basis of the CNSC granting OPG a limited license extension to operate reactors up to the 210,000 hour limit. However, I doubt one would want to continue to operate any of the Pickering B reactors after one tube failed. What would that do to the continued operation of the six at Bruce? The nuclear enterprise in Ontario has entered perilous waters where the failure of just one pressure tube could sink it.

Darlington: Management of Nuclear Accidents

After Fukushima it became impossible to deny that serious nuclear accidents will occur from time to time and that more attention must be paid to mitigating their effects. In particular an important problem is how to effectively and efficiently evacuate the people likely to be affected by the radiation produced in the accident.
I should declare a bias at the start of this piece. In the 1960’s, as a young naval reserve officer, I did a two week course at the now-defunct Canadian Civil Defence College in Arnprior, Ontario. The College was an excellent school with all manner of training aids including simulated collapsed buildings for hands-on training in rescue, facilities for mass feeding of evacuees, demonstrations of how to set up casualty clearing stations, radiation monitoring and decontamination stations and so forth back in the day when it was believed that a nuclear war was survivable. From that brief experience I certainly didn’t become an expert in emergency planning but I did gain a lasting appreciation for what would be involved in assisting the victims of a nuclear accident. It is indeed a formidable task best left to experts and the key to success is a flexible well-established Command and Control structure that can deal with the accident situation as it evolves.
The point is that the population affected by an emergency need to feel there is a strong and capable authority in charge. This means there must be a good alerting system and very good communications as the accident unfolds. I used to show my nuclear engineering students the 1999 PBS documentary Meltdown at Three Mile Island. In the film politicians, media, engineers and local residents were brought together twenty years after the accident to share their experiences including the confusion over what was happening at the plant and the contradictory orders to evacuate. Jimmy Carter, then President of the United States, and Dick Thornburgh, then Governor of Pennsylvania, were both unable to get clear information on the accident and local municipal officials were left completely in the dark.
Similarly in the documentary Battle of Chernobyl Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the USSR at the time, says he couldn’t find out what was happening in the first two days and in the end he had to resort to asking the KGB, the secret police, to find out for him the situation at Chernobyl. The reports on the Fukushima accident show that some authorities didn’t share information with others on radiation and in fact some people were evacuated to areas of higher radiation. The organizations operating all three reactors were more of a hindrance than a help and mainly confined themselves to issuing soothing reassurances to the public. For example, Gorbachev was told on the first day of the accident that the Chernobyl reactor was so safe it could be placed in Red Square with no resulting harm. Met Ed, the TMI utility and TEPCO, the Fukushima operator, were notoriously poor at communications not only with the public but also with government and the media.
What comes across strongly in all these accidents is the overriding importance of effective communications and the need for a centralized authority to coordinate and implement all aspects of dealing with the accident. It was clear at the Darlington hearings that OPG and the CNSC in particular had little understanding of how the existing organizations in place to deal with emergencies would operate. Representatives of the Durham Emergency Management Office and Emergency Management Ontario were called upon to be questioned at the hearings but my observation is that the Commission was unable to understand their message. At one point the CNSC president was asking the cool disembodied voice of an EMO official present by teleconference if he could give him “a plan he could hold in his hand” – I expected the song Call me maybe to start playing in the background.
My first recommendation is that the Emergency Management organizations have absolute control of the response to nuclear emergencies with offsite consequences. Otherwise there are too many other organizations and politicians that would meddle in the situation to create a total fiasco. I would further recommend that much more funding be invested in EM organizations particularly in areas around the reactor sites. This is a “no regrets” option since a higher level of preparedness would also have a positive impact on non-nuclear disasters.
In an on-site emergency the accidents to date have taught us that it was the fire fighters and local plant staff who fought to bring their reactors under control. The troop of lavishly paid suits power companies trot out for public performances only gave bogus public reassurances. Much is owed to the courage of the firemen of Chernobyl and the fifty men who stayed at Fukushima. I would strongly recommend that the OPG types stop drawing circles around their reactors based on dubious PSA calculations and instead put their efforts and their money into preparing and supporting the boots on the ground that will have to deal with an emergency.
Emergency management is far too important to be neglected because an accident is thought to be improbable.

Darlington: More Safety Related Issues

Three more significant topics related to nuclear safety came up at the hearings.

The first concerns the population near the Darlington reactor complex. The higher the surrounding population the more impact an accident would have. The Darlington station is about 70 km from downtown Toronto. The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station with its six operating and two dormant reactors is even closer to Toronto. As I understand it, the plan is to extend the life of the four Pickering B reactors until around 2025 and then close down the two remaining Pickering A reactors at the same time. If this goes as planned, all the Pickering reactors would be shut down in twelve years. Significant nuclear activity including decommissioning and used fuel storage would still remain at Pickering but the potential for a reactor accident with far reaching consequences would disappear.
On the other hand the four Darlington reactors as refurbished will operate until 2060 and perhaps two more new build reactors will be added to bring the total to six. With Pickering closed down one might want to reconsider whether it is a good idea to build new reactors so close to the major population centre of southern Ontario or indeed whether the continued operation of the current Darlington reactors after refurbishment is a good idea. New reactors could be built at willing communities such as the Bruce site, in the upper Ottawa valley and Nanticoke on Lake Erie. Indeed, why not share the economic wealth that the boosters love so much? I know that this is not going to happen but I strongly suspect that if we had it to do all over again we’d keep the reactors as far away from large populations as possible.
A second issue concerns reactor operation when the safety systems are unavailable. According to the Darlington hearings presentation of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), a venerable ant-nuclear group, reactors are sometimes operated with one or more of the safety systems unavailable. Not only that but the CNSC (and its predecessor the AECB) used to annually publish “statistics” on the unavailability of the safety systems but no longer does so even though OPG still provides them to the CNSC. The CCNR wanted to see them published again.
This became a classic case of the miscommunications that plague the nuclear industry. The CCNR would have us believe that the operators would in effect say “Doesn’t matter if all the safety systems are working, let’s start up the reactor”. On the other side the CNSC and OPG vehemently denied that reactors are ever operated without any of the four main safety systems available. As usual the truth is somewhere in between. CANDU reactors can operate for weeks and months without ever shutting down. At various times during continuous operation the safety systems are tested and sometimes one or more are temporarily unavailable. The number and duration of such outages comprise the statistics in question. It seems that both sides of the issue deliberately chose to misunderstand each other. The original question (i.e. why doesn’t the CNSC still publish the statistics) was never answered.
A third issue is the multi-unit nature of the Darlington station. All four reactors share a common control room, a large cavernous room (“area zero” as I recall), with a separate console area for each reactor. This makes the control area very vulnerable to accidents and malevolent actions. Both the Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl reactors involved in the accidents were in multi-reactor clusters. In both cases the neighboring reactors undamaged by the accidents continued to operate for years afterward. The key was that the other reactors had their own control rooms isolated from the damaged reactors so that for example radiation in or damage to the control room of one didn’t affect the others. In the case of Fukushima four reactors were involved and the problem there was the whether the reactors could be remotely operated from a secondary control room. Multi-reactor/single control room issues are being reconsidered internationally. I feel that intuitively one would prefer a separate control room for each reactor which is not the case at Darlington.
As for malevolent acts I personally doubt, with no particular knowledge for believing so, that any armed terrorist gang would attempt to fight its way into the common control room area but if they were successful all four reactors would be in danger. The actions of mentally disturbed workers including those with drug or alcohol problems are more likely to be the source of attacks on the shared control room area. The CNSC has been discussing mandatory drug and alcohol testing of reactor operators but as far as I can determine no regulations are yet in place. The good news is that a cyber attack, a technique that has already been used against nuclear facilities elsewhere in the world, does not appear to distinguish between control room configurations. Various comments on these matters were made by intervenors but in this case it is clearly in everyone’s interests to keep all the details of security arrangements secret.
I believe the first and third of the above problem areas arose from an overly optimistic attitude to nuclear safety on the part of Darlington’s designers stemming from a desire to save money by minimizing transmission loses and by having the reactors share common facilities.

Darlington: The Safety Elephant in the Room

Fukushima has changed our approach to nuclear safety to more emphasis on accident mitigation.

At these hearings the elephant in the room was not Elmer the traffic safety elephant well know to Canadian children but the Fukushima safety elephant. It shook up the way we look at nuclear safety.
The essential lesson from Fukushima is that future reactor accidents are much more probable than what we might like to think. Since then accident mitigation has become an urgent consideration as shown by the emphasis on emergency planning at the hearings.
According to the World Nuclear Association there have been almost 15,000 years of power reactor operation from about 1960 to the end of 2012. During that time there have been three serious nuclear accidents – “black swans” (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima). This makes the probability of a serious accident about 1 in 5,000 or 2 x 10-4 per reactor year. One can play with this number by changing the number of reactors that melted down (three at Fukushima or not counting TMI as a serious accident) and so on but it’s the order of magnitude of the meltdown probability that is really of interest.
Each of these events occurred in a different reactor types (PWR, RMBK and BWR) in countries with differing nuclear cultures and regulation regimes. Aside from stressing the importance of overriding issues such as human error, institutional failure and design defects, it is difficult to know where to go with the black swan approach in analyzing reactor safety. Although certainly one can draw lessons from them after the fact as is being done for Fukushima, notably compensating measures for the complete loss of electrical power in a reactor plant (“total station blackout”) and further measures to prevent hydrogen explosions.
Contrast this with the traditional approach to reactor safety known as PSA (Probabilistic Safety Analysis/Assessment). This approach tries to examine all possible accident event sequences and figure out the probability associated with each sequence. In practice it’s very complicated and there can be hundreds or even thousands of events and sequences. To give an overly simplified example, let’s consider an accident sequence that starts with event A: a cooling pipe breaks, then B: a sensor fails to indicate the break, then C: the reactor operator doesn’t see the reactor temperature increasing, then D: a switch activating the emergency core cooling system doesn’t work, then E: the operator pushes the wrong button to correct this and F: a core meltdown occurs because the reactor overheats.
This too simple example illustrates some of the key aspects of PSA. The validity of the approach depends on the accuracy of the probabilities assigned to the individual events since the overall accident probability (of event F for example) is obtained by multiplying the probabilities of the individual events in the sequence. Some might be well known; perhaps the B sensor is used in many applications and its failure rate is well documented from experience. At the other end of the scale there are probabilities that one can merely guess at e.g. the initiating pipe break probability might be hard to evaluate. Another very important condition is that the probability of a certain event happening is independent of other events. This may not always be the case: event C implies an incompetent operator and therefore, event E may be more likely. For completeness all possible accident sequences need to be evaluated. There isn’t any way to be sure completeness has been achieved. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an event sequence at Fukushima that started with: “suppose there was a tsunami wave higher than the protective sea wall”.
Safety analysts in Canada and internationally continue to use PSA. In fact people have made whole careers in the nuclear industry putting bells and whistles on the basic PSA framework. While it has proven useless for predicting accident probabilities, PSA is useful for highlighting and correcting potential problems. In the context of the example above, perhaps a more reliable type of switch D could be installed or better training is needed for operators in terms of events C and E. The other important reason for continuing PSA is that there doesn’t seem to be any worthwhile alternative. As CNSC staff pointed out, PSA is still the international standard approach to reactor safety.
The problem is that PSA comes up with accident probabilities of the order of one in a hundred thousand or one in a million or even one in ten million per reactor year that are completely out of whack with the one in five thousand observed accident frequency. At the hearings I was disappointed to hear staff from the CNSC and OPG bandy about terms such as a “10-6 accident”, usually without the “per reactor year” unit giving the erroneous implication that these were realistic accident probabilities. In the best interpretation this could be excused as bad communications using nuclear jargon and in the worst interpretation a dishonest attempt to minimize the probability of an accident.
Much more serious was OPG and the CNSC using PSA as a basis for emergency planning. Statements were made that can be roughly paraphrased as “their (PSA) probability is so low that we don’t consider accidents with offsite consequences more than a few kilometers from the site” and “OPG has identified two catastrophic accident scenarios but their PSA probabilities are in the order of 10-7 and so we can safely ignore them”. Using PSA, discredited by experience as a method of predicting accident probabilities, is unscientific and intellectually dishonest. Thus, in my opinion, the hearings witnessed a disgraceful performance on the part of the institutions charged with our nuclear safety.

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.