Nuclear-safety agency not adequately inspecting power plants, watchdog says

Gloria Galloway

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Published Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2016 10:13AM EDT

Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2016 5:08PM EDT

The federal agency charged with ensuring the safety of Canada’s nuclear power plants is unable to prove that it is inspecting those facilities often or thoroughly enough or that it has the number of staff required to do the job, says a new report by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

The audit released by the commissioner, Julie Gelfand, on Tuesday as part of her fall report calls into question whether the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), which is often accused by environmentalists of being too close to the industry it was established to monitor, is providing proper oversight of the country’s nuclear reactors.

The auditors could find no proof that the CNSC has determined how many inspections are needed to ensure that nuclear power plant operators are complying with their licensing and regulatory requirements. Nor, says the audit, could the regulator demonstrate that it takes risks into account when making decisions about which inspections it would and would not conduct.

“I think it’s pretty serious,” Julie Gelfand, the environment commissioner, told a news conference. ”Given that the nuclear industry is a precision industry, it’s pretty serious if something goes wrong.”

Ms. Gelfand said the audit does not inspire confidence in the safety of the nuclear system, or provide assurances that important things are not being missed.

The audit found that 75 per cent of inspections carried out by the CNSC were done by an inspector who was not following an approved guide.

“It’s a bit like an airline pilot who doesn’t go through his check list before taking off,” said the commissioner. “That means that the commission can’t tell us, and show us, that they are covering in their site inspections all of their requirements.”

The audit follows on the heels of an anonymous letter sent earlier this year to CNSC president Michael Binder, purportedly written by technologists inside the regulator, that pointed to five separate cases in which the commission’s staff sat on relevant material about risk or non-compliance that might have called the safety of a plant into question.

Dr. Binder, who was appointed by the previous Conservative government after it fired former president Linda Keen when she balked at skirting safety rules, subsequently questioned whether that letter was part of a “conspiracy theory” concocted by outsiders.

But the CNSC management agreed with all of the recommendations made by the environment commissioner to correct the deficiencies that her audit team uncovered in the regulator’s inspection regime.

Among other things, the audit says the CNSC conducted only about 48 per cent of the inspections of nuclear plants in 2013-14 and 2014-15 that should have been scheduled under the regulator’s five-year plan.

“The decisions about which inspections the CNSC would and would not carry out from the five-year plan were based on professional judgment and the rationales for those decisions – such as on how risks were taken into account – were not documented,” says the audit.

In some cases, the inspections were not done because inspectors and technical specialists were not available. The audit says the CNSC could not show that it had assigned an appropriate number of staff to deal with the risks.

In fact, the regulator’s senior managers told the auditors that they believed there were enough inspectors to do the work and that more were being assigned as issues arose. But, wrote the auditors, “we were told by site inspectors and site supervisors at every nuclear power plant that there were either not enough inspectors at their sites, or not enough at the levels needed.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday to explain why he continues to support Mr. Binder in the role of CNSC president after the letter of last summer and the problems that were uncovered by the auditor.

Mr. Trudeau did not respond directly to the question but said the Liberal government takes the question of nuclear safety seriously and will work to ensure that Canada maintains the highest standards.

After the daily Question Period in the House of Commons, Kim Rudd, the parliamentary secretary to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, said the government does have confidence in the CNSC and said she understands that the regulator is already beginning to address the auditor’s recommendations.

Japanese officials have admitted that there were inadequate inspections of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Japan in the years leading up to the disaster of 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami disabled three reactors, causing their cores to melt down and creating the largest nuclear disasters since Chernobyl.

In response to the audit, the CNSC says it is updating its five-year plan and will review both its staffing allocation and the frequency and type of inspections that are needed to ensure compliance.

But Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace Canada, said the audit proves that “Canada’s so-called nuclear watchdog is all bark and no bite. The CNSC needs to actually oversee nuclear safety instead of just reassuring Canadians nuclear power is safe.”


CNSC review dismissing nuclear-safety concerns called a ‘sham’

Gloria Galloway

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail - Corrected version

Published Tuesday, Aug. 09, 2016 7:15PM EDT

Last updated Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016 3:54PM EDT

An internal review by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission dismisses allegations that important information was withheld during the licensing of nuclear plants but two nuclear scientists say the review is “less than impartial” and a “sham” that should give Canadians no comfort.

In June, CNSC president Michael Binder received an anonymous letter, purported to have been written by employees at the nuclear regulator, that pointed to five separate cases in which the commission’s staff sat on relevant information that might have called the safety of a nuclear plant into question.

Peter Elder, a strategic adviser within the CNSC’s regulatory operations branch, who says he was able to maintain a neutral position because he did not work on the safety of nuclear power plants between 2008 and 2015, conducted a review that concluded late last week that none of the five cases point to any safety issues.

Most of the allegations in the anonymous letter relate to inadequate “probabilistic safety assessments” (PSAs), which forecast what could go wrong in a reactor, the probability of those situations occurring and the potential consequence.

“In most cases, the anonymous letter overstates the importance of the PSA to the overall safety case,” Mr. Elder wrote. PSAs, he wrote, are not meant to be used without other types of safety analyses, or to set operational safety limits, and care should be used when regulatory conclusions are drawn from their results.

“There was also no evidence to support the author’s opinion that ‘CNSC commissioners do not receive sufficient information to make balanced judgments,’” Mr. Elder wrote.

He recommended that the CNSC make a better effort to clarify the role of PSAs in the regulation of nuclear generating stations, that the “depth and scope” of the technical reviews performed to support licensing be clearly documented, and that management should reinforce with staff all of the processes that are available for raising issues of this nature.

But two nuclear experts have written subsequent letters to Mr. Binder asking him to discard Mr. Elder’s review and to allow an arm’s-length inquiry into the allegations of the anonymous whistle-blowers.

Frank Greening, a nuclear chemist who is a former senior research scientist at Ontario Hydro, the predecessor of Ontario Power Generation, wrote that Mr. Elder’s claim to have conducted an independent investigation was “quite extraordinary and ridiculous.”

Mr. Elder “cannot possibly be independent because he is an employee of the CNSC,” wrote Dr. Greening. He asked Mr. Binder to “reject Mr. Elder’s less than impartial review.”

In a telephone interview, Dr. Greening said PSAs have, for many years “been taken very very seriously and formed the backbone of a licence renewal. And now the CNSC turns around and says well actually, they’re really not that important. That’s absurd.

“If I was one of those whistle-blowers, I would be very very distressed at this stage of the game.”

In a second letter, Sunil Nijhawan, a nuclear safety engineer with more than 35 years in the industry, wrote that Mr. Elder’s conclusions display an ignorance of basic safety principles and the legislated role of the CNSC.

“After a lifetime of working in PSAs I am now asking why so many of us toiled for years and why the industry was forced to spend well over $50-million on PSAs so far?” Dr. Nijhawan wrote. “Why are many in the rest of the world doing brilliant peer-reviewed PSAs and using the findings to not only improve operations, reduce risk and also come up with improved designs?”
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