Ottawa calls it right on Chalk River row
14 December 2007
Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy and Sustainable Energy Management at the University of Waterloo
The decision to rush through legislation to overrule the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and restart the Chalk River reactor to resume production of medical isotopes could not have been more timely, apt, relevant and correct. The ability of all parties in the House of Commons to take necessary action is exemplary and laudable, in sharp contrast to the CNSC's failure to evaluate the broader consequences to “life safety” of Canadians.
The failure arises primarily from a loss of balanced perspective. The competency of CNSC staff is not in doubt – these are professionals committed to performing their duties within the established framework of rules and regulations. Neither is the competency and capacity of Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., the owner and operator of the reactor: again, staffed by scientists and engineers who have operated the facility safely for more than 50 years. The dispute arises between the regulator and the operator from a “deemed” non-compliance order issued over a technical matter related to nuclear safety.
The essential question is not between “safe operation” as determined by the operator and “unsafe operating state” as determined by the regulatory agency. Safety is of paramount importance to both parties and more so when it comes to operating a reactor. There is no reason to believe that AECL – or any other nuclear operator in Canada – would knowingly jeopardize the health and safety of its workers or nearby communities.
At the heart of the dispute is the question of how to manage risk. Safety is too often presented as a one-sided equation: The assumption is that the only responsible choice is to provide the maximum possible safety margin in the operation of nuclear plants. But, in reality, safety is never absolute. At some point, we accept a certain level of risk. The past few weeks have shown what happens when we focus too heavily on the hypothetical costs of an unlikely catastrophic event, and forget the real costs imposed in mitigating such risk.
Nuclear safety frequently deals in infinitesimally small risks – in this case, the risk of a highly unlikely event (such as an earthquake) combined with consequential failure of multiple safety systems and equipment. AECL may have been tardy in implementing safety upgrades for additional redundancy that would further reduce the probability and consequences arising from a quake, and thus, strictly speaking, in violation of its licence.
But the CNSC's assertion that nuclear safety is “compromised” is just that: an assertion. The fact that a safety upgrade would further reduce the likelihood of an accident to an even lower probability does not render the facility unsafe in its current state.
While determining the safe operating envelope of a nuclear reactor is a highly complex and technical subject, it requires prudent judgment on the part of the operator that takes all factors into account. What has been most striking about the Chalk River debate has been that the question of appropriate risk management has been more intuitively grasped by the public than by the nuclear regulator.
Parliamentarians, in particular, have seen through this foggy debate on nuclear safety with clarity. On the one hand, concern over safety driven by a hypothetical scenario and assumed malfunctions; on the other hand, real and immediate impact on the health and lives of many patients across Canada and the world. What we have seen is a fascinating public trade-off between tangible life-saving enhancements that medical isotopes provide and the hypothetical nature of nuclear safety concerns.
It has rarely been clearer that both nuclear safety and life safety are inextricably intertwined; indeed, they are two sides of the same coin. But our regulator has failed us by not taking into account the benefits that reactors provide. It is perhaps a narrow focus on technical safety without a more comprehensive assessment of societal benefits that led to this impasse between the regulator and the operator.
It is entirely appropriate that the CNSC's technical staff continue to focus on assessing nuclear safety through the licensing process. But what we have witnessed is the inability of the CNSC's senior management to put in place a review mechanism that truly balances the risks, costs and benefits from a societal perspective. Safety is about life extension, and lack of safety is about premature shortening of life. Nuclear safety is no exception.
We should expect that, in future, our regulatory agencies will develop more sophisticated measures of evaluating their decisions and try to capture the true intent of the “obligation to serve the public interest.” The CNSC has come short. The repository of wisdom inherent in our Parliament has prevailed