December 01, 2009
The Canadian Nuclear Association has come under fire in the past for congratulating bodies like Atomic Energy for implementing certain measures. (Dec. 1, 2009).FRED CHARTRAND/CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO
When environmental group Sierra Club of Canada issued a report this month warning against dangerous levels of radioactive tritium in drinking water, the country's nuclear watchdog was quick to bark back.
It issued a terse statement assuring the public that tritium releases from the country's nuclear power industry posed no risk to health. The agency "would not licence a facility unless it was operating safely," it said.
But the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, whose sole mandate is to protect the health, safety and security of Canadians, did not stop there.
It lambasted the Sierra Club for choosing "to ignore the important benefits of nuclear technology" and not recognizing "nuclear power is a safe way of producing low-emission electricity."
Shawn-Patrick Stensil of Greenpeace Canada, who was not involved in the Sierra Group study, was surprised by the reaction. There's nothing wrong with correcting the record, he said, but an independent regulator sounding like an industry promoter? "That's a little outside their mandate."
It's just the latest example of what critics contend is a breakdown of the regulator's independence at a time when the federal government is determined to see a nuclear renaissance in Canada, one led by embattled reactor designer and Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
It started two years ago, they say, when the regulator ordered the shutdown of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River. Atomic Energy had failed to hook up a critical emergency backup system on its isotope-producing reactor. The safety commission demanded that it be fixed.
But the temporary shutdown led to a shortage of global isotope supply, forcing legislators to overturn the regulator's order. Embarrassed by the episode, the Conservative government sent a chilling message through the commission by firing its president Linda Keen and naming long-time civil servant Michael Binder as her replacement.
Keen maintains she did exactly what her job required. "I thought I worked for Canadians, I really did. But I guess I was wrong," she told the Star.
Binder has taken a much different approach since Keen's termination in January 2008. He routinely chastises the media for being critical of Atomic Energy, and often dismisses the concerns of environmental groups as scaremongering based on "junk science."
In September, Binder, in an unusual move for the head of a quasi-judicial agency, allowed himself to be quoted in an Atomic Energy news release congratulating the company for passing a high-level design review of its next-generation reactor, the ACR-1000.
He said he was "pleased to recognize" completion of the review. "This is a positive result in the assessment of whether there are any fundamental barriers to safety in the proposed design provisions of the ACR-1000," Binder stated.
It's the equivalent, some say, of a trial judge being quoted in the victor's news release.
"The arm's-length independence after the whole Keen fiasco is gone," said New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen.
"The watchdog is not independent, and it will give a stamp of approval to whatever the government wants. That's what we're hearing now."
In an interview, Binder disputed any suggestion his arrival has made the agency less independent and more pro-industry.
"I have never felt more independent in my life," he said, comparing it to his 38 years in the public service, including a long run as an assistant deputy minister at Industry Canada.
"Contrary to what the press is saying, the prime minister cannot fire me. He can take away my designation as president, but I can remain a commissioner."
Binder said he sees nothing wrong with congratulating Atomic Energy, adding he will do the same for Atomic Energy competitors Areva and Westinghouse if and when such milestones are reached.
As for environmentalists, "what I take exception to is some so-called scientific observations that everything we do is unsafe," he explained. "I can tell you this organization has existed for 63 years. We have a pretty good track record in this industry."
Still, in a world where perception matters, some, including his predecessor, worry Binder is crossing the line. "He wants to make things work," Linda Keen said in an interview.
"When Binder came in, I think he was told (by the government) these are things that didn't go right under Keen and we want it to change."
Keen said the president of the commission is in a position to influence where the agency's limited financial resources are directed. "The (nuclear) companies know if they phone him that will influence his decision."
Ziggy Kleinau, founder of Citizens for Renewable Energy, said when Keen was president she created an advisory committee made up of commission staff and environmental and citizen groups.
It was her way of reaching out and better understanding the concerns of the community, and the group was supposed to meet twice a year.
"Then Mr. Binder came in," he said. "We haven't been called back for two years."
Kleinau's frustration came to a head on Oct. 1 in Port Elgin, where the commission held a hearing to determine whether to grant Bruce Power a five-year extension to its nuclear operating licence.
He said the process was hijacked by Bruce Power, and the conditions of the licence had been updated to keep the regulator's oversight of the nuclear operator to a minimum.
Kleinau, who has been intervening in nuclear safety hearings for more than a decade, got up and along with seven members of his organization left the hearing in angry protest.
"It was a farce," he said.