‘Ottawa’ Letter alleges key information withheld from nuclear safety commissioners
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is investigating allegations, purportedly from an internal group of specialists, that CNSC commissioners are receiving “insufficient information” to make informed safety decisions about Ontario’s nuclear power plants.
In an unsigned letter to CNSC president Michael Binder, copied to Postmedia, the authors say their main concern is that the nuclear watchdog’s commissioners “do not receive sufficient information to make balanced judgments.”
As a result, other branches of government cannot make informed decisions either, the letter says. “For example, the government of Ontario cannot make a good decision about financing the refurbishment of (the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station) without knowing all the facts.”
Darlington, on the shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto, is about to undergo a decade-long, $12.8-billion refurbishment of its four reactors to extend their useful life by 30 years.
The letter’s authors say they opted for anonymity because their opinions will be unpopular with CNSC management and “we are not confident in whistleblower protection.”
CNSC spokeswoman Sunni Locatelli said Monday the agency is aware of the letter “and we have initiated a formal review.”
In a followup email statement, the CNSC said an analysis of the concerns raised in the letter was underway. “Once completed, the results of the analysis will be reviewed by senior management and will be discussed at a future public meeting of the commission.”
The letter makes specific allegations involving CNSC oversight of Ontario’s Darlington and Bruce nuclear plants.
In the case of Darlington, it states that CNSC granted Ontario Power Generation a one-year licence in 2014 on the understanding that it would provide the safety case for the refurbishment.
But OPG didn’t submit required studies or inform commissioners that a safety assessment had not been updated prior to being granted a long-term licence last December, the letter says. As a result, OPG is not compliant with the regulations, “and neither OPG nor the commission can make an informed decision about the safety of the plant during refurbishment.”
When OPG later submitted an updated assessment, CNSC staff didn’t tell the commissioners they had done “little or no review” of it and therefore “cannot endorse the results and findings of the document,” the letter says.
In its email response, the CNSC said the topic safety assessments “was discussed at length by the commission” during the 2015 public hearings on the licence renewals for the Darlington and Bruce stations.
The letter also refers to a Natural Resources Canada review of the seismic hazard for the Darlington site that concluded OPG had underestimated the hazard by a factor of two in its 2011 seismic safety assessment. OPG reached the same conclusion when it updated its assessment two or three years ago, the letter says, but neither OPG nor safety commission staff informed the CNSC commissioners of the change.
OPG spokesman Neal Kelly said the Crown corporation couldn’t comment on the letter.
“In all licensing hearings, we conduct extensive and thorough studies that are examined in detail,” Kelly said. “The results of those studies have shown that our plants are safe to operate and will protect the environment and the public.”
The issues are “a symptom of a larger problem at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission,” said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a nuclear analyst at Greenpeace Canada who was also copied on the letter to Binder.
Binder has been “a big booster” of the nuclear industry since the Conservative government hired him in 2008 after dismissing his predecessor, Linda Keen, Stensil said. “As president, he controls the policy and mindset of the commission’s staff.
“It’s why the Trudeau government needs to clean up the CNSC, just as it’s doing with other federal agencies after the Harper government.”