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.

Darlington: CNSC Independence?

Several intervenors at the Darlington hearings expressed views that the CNSC was biased toward the nuclear industry. On the few occasions when he elected to acknowledge these claims the President, Michael Binder, countered by harrumphing “prove it”. With all the cards stacked in its favour I feel the onus should be on the CNSC to prove its independence rather than the other way round since its credibility is its most precious possession.
Any regulatory system always faces the difficult problem of the close relationship of the regulated and the regulators. A kind of Stockholm Syndrome comes into play which some called “regulatory capture” (There was a guy from Greenpeace who seemed so much a part of the current and past proceedings that he may be evidence of “intervenor capture” ) This perception is compounded by the federal government’s cost recovery program whereby OPG pays CNSC to be regulated. It seems that about 70% of the CNSC budget is obtained from the regulated. Similarly the location of many CNSC staff at OPG sites including Darlington increases the perception of a too close relationship. It was admitted that there was no personnel rotation system to prevent CNSC staff from being “captured” by OPG. Some of the high paying jobs at Darlington referred to by boosters are in fact CNSC jobs.
Speaking of jobs the CNSC now seems to have a staff numbering about 850; this is double the 1999 staffing level of 425. It’s difficult to see how the CNSC can justify doubling its staff in a decade of declining nuclear activity or is it just a symptom of empire building?
Even the format of the hearings leads to an impression of bias. The CNSC members sit at a long table as a tribunal with the applicants, in this case OPG, on one side before them with Commission staff on the other. Those who come to give their views to the Commission, the intervenors, are placed in a position between OPG and CNSC staff. It’s almost as if the intervenor is the “accused” in a trial. Several intervenors admitted to being nervous and feeling intimidated by this arrangement. On the plus side, there was often applause from the audience in support of their presentations.
The nature of the hearings is such that CNSC staff and OPG almost always tag teamed to reply to the comments of the intervenors because both sides have agreed on the issues raised in various documents negotiated beforehand. Similarly, what can be discussed and what can’t be (i.e. the scope of the hearings) was predetermined by OPG and the CNSC and often as Inspector Clouseau would say “the old beyond the scope ploy” was used to prevent certain subjects being raised. It was no wonder that Intervenors got the feeling they were being ganged up on by Commission staff taking the side of OPG.
At one point an intervenor directly challenged the CNSC’s distribution of literature promoting the nuclear industry. The President claimed that section 9b of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act of 1997 permitted the CNSC to do so. It’s worth quoting the section:
“[an object of the CNSC is] to disseminate objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public concerning the activities of the Commission and the effects, on the environment and on the health and safety of persons..”The crux of argument is not whether the CNSC can legally disseminate information but rather whether the promotional material is “objective” and “scientific”. No useful discussion of this point took place because the President simply deflected the issue via a legalistic argument based on 9b.
Another independence issue raised was that according to the biographies on the CNSC website it appears one Commissioner worked for OPG as recently as 2011. The perception of a potential conflict of interest was possible and in fact this was raised by at least two intervenors. Once again this was sidestepped by the President. While I’m not impugning the integrity of this particular individual, I would say that the “optics” was poor and in my opinion recusal would have been more appropriate for an OPG application.
Speaking of optics perhaps the CNSC should report to Parliament through the Minister of the Environment rather than the present arrangement of via the Minister of Natural Resources. That might help position the Commission as more independent in some minds particularly when under new legislation it can conduct full Environmental Assessments.
The cynical might say that the current President might be more disturbed by accusations of being perfectly objective rather than of being biased. The fate of his predecessor, Linda Keen, who apparently was too objective for the government, must always be on his mind. My impression is that the present incumbent doesn’t realize the Commission’s serious credibility problem and it’s a pity he doesn’t seem willing to do obvious things to fix it.

Darlington Boosters

“As a nuclear plant-hosting municipality, we have depended on it in terms of finance and employment…. Our village may have reaped benefits for 30 or 40 years. But if we lose our homeland in return, what’s the point?.. What a lowly, sad people we are to think that way…”
These are the words of Tatsuya Murakami, Mayor of Tokai Japan after the Fukushima accident. Tokai has twelve nuclear establishments and about eight thousand of its inhabitants depend on them for their livelihood. I’ve been to the Tokai area on five or six separate occasions before Fukushima and found it to be a pleasant and prosperous place. Murakami was a strong early booster of the nuclear industry but now is the leader of the Japanese municipalities trying to stop the restart of their shut-down reactors.
This is just a cautionary note because, as one might expect, there were several project boosting interventions at the Darlington hearings based on economic benefits to communities including lots of well paying jobs. The essential messages were that the proponents loved all things nuclear and especially the associated money which they insist must be kept flowing. They were right to say that thousands of new high quality jobs were bound to be created by the refurbishment project.
Politicians at all levels pushed this message as did reps of the nuclear unions and companies in the industry. There were even a couple of presentations from the newly fledged local university, one consisting of a lame plea from engineering students that they needed the jobs the project would create.
While it’s not within the mandate of the CNSC to consider job creation, we can be sure that this aspect is glowingly reported to what used to be called “the Centre” of the federal government (PCO or PMO?) as yet another triumph of the administration’s Economic Action Plan.
OPG was portrayed by many as a strong supporter of the communities around Darlington. Apparently this included lots of money in addition to briefings to local municipal councils. It seems that for many years the OPG cash fairy was flitting around sprinkling money on all sorts of no doubt worthy organizations; they in turn showed up to sing OPG’s praises at the hearings.
Support was also given by towns hosting other nuclear installations far from Darlington. Closer to home the Mayor of Clarington gave a fulsome endorsement to OPG including thanking them for providing funding so that their Council could hire consultants to review the OPG submission to the Environmental Assessment. He didn’t say but I’d guess that such a review might be done for something like $50,000 or less. I thought it was a pity that the municipality with an annual budget of more than $60 million (as far as I could tell on the net) couldn’t afford to do this with its own funds especially since as the Mayor said it was so important to the town. But then who could refuse the OPG cash fairy?
Let’s hope for all of our sakes that Darlington’s local politicians don’t find themselves in the future with the same regrets as the Mayor of Tokai.

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

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.

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.

Poor Communications, Poor Regulation

“What we have here is a failure to communicate”

I was depressed by reading the report by Talisman Consulting about the NRU shutdown debacle.  As you will recall there was a test of wills between AECL and CNSC last autumn that resulted in the shutdown of NRU, a resulting medical isotope shortage and a Parliamentary intervention to put NRU back on line. Talisman consulting was asked to look into what happened. The gist of the report is that communications were poor at every level inside AECL and the CNSC and between the two organizations.

For example, it recounts how both AECL and CNSC staff were talking knowledgeably about the “licensing basis”, a term it turns out is completely undefined. The picture I get of people solemnly faking expertise  about matters they don’t understand is really unedifying and, of course, ultimately dangerous.

Remember that the reactor being regulated when these problems arose was NRU which is in its sixth decade and has been licensed by the CNSC and its predecessor the AECB from its beginnings. If they can’t get it right for NRU, how can we expect the CNSC to regulate the LWR’s that may be selected for construction in Ontario? These reactors are completely outside their experience.

Some people view Parliament’s overriding the CNSC process to bring NRU back in operation was a “victory” for the nuclear industry.  Personalities aside, this is just foolish. Any loss of regulatory authority, even psychological as the loss of face suffered by the CNSC in this incident, is a net loss for the nuclear industry.  

The industry is always one accident away from being again relegated to the shadows. Like other nuclear advocates, I believe effective regulation is absolutely essential.  

Two quotations from an article on nuclear regulation that the late John de la Mothe and I wrote in 2001 (in Canadian Nuclear Energy Policy, University of Toronto Press, ed. G.B. Doern, et al.) seem particularly apt commentary.

Public perceptions and expectations of regulation are very important in the sense that nuclear activities must not only be safe but also must be seen to be safe.”

“The Canadian public, and thus, their governments, will not tolerate the operation of nuclear power plants if there is a widely held perception that regulation is not working. “