Canada's Safety Watchdogs Can Learn Some New Tricks
John G. Waddington
The Ottawa Citizen
Monday, December 17, 2007
With the National Research Universal reactor now powering up to resume the production of isotopes for the world medical community, an examination of the regulatory process that led to its shutdown will soon get under way. That examination should focus on the clash between the traditional, very conservative approach to the evaluation of risk that a nuclear regulator takes, and the real world assessment of risk that politicians have to make to best meet the needs of all Canadians.
Firstly, in my view, the NRU reactor was and is safe. As a professional engineer, I am convinced that the likelihood of a severe accident is extremely low, since it is a robust design that operates at low temperature and pressure, and produces only about five per cent of the heat produced in a typical nuclear power station.
AECL's decision to keep the reactor shut down after realizing that an upgrade to the emergency power supplies to two main coolant pumps was not as it should have been was appropriate and prudent.
Traditionally, regulators and nuclear operators are, as they should be, prudent, conservative and predisposed to take every precaution to ensure that a serious accident is so unlikely that the public can be assured one will not occur. Late in November, that traditional approach clashed with the need to produce medical radioisotopes for real people, who are in need right now -- today.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and its scientists and engineers have for many years considered their sole focus to be safety, and the impact of their decisions on production is not their concern. In most situations this singular focus on safety works well. In this situation it didn't, because the negative impact of keeping the NRU reactor shut down on the health of Canadians and people around the world was compelling and immediate.
Ministers Gary Lunn and Tony Clement sent a letter to CNSC President Linda Keen asking the commission to take into account the use of isotopes for medical purposes in regulating the NRU reactor. The CNSC insisted the reactor remain shut down until every upgrade was installed, and the resulting parliamentary intervention was a first in the history of Canada's regulatory process.
The CNSC is the most independent regulator in the world, reporting directly to Parliament. Under the 1999 Nuclear Safety and Control Act a government may issue policy directions to the CNSC, but it cannot -- and indeed should not -- influence licensing decisions.
In these circumstances, the government had to find a process that would look at all the risks involved. To their credit, they bit the bullet and asked Parliament to examine the issue. Parliament decided to override the CNSC only after examining the issues directly with the president of the CNSC, senior AECL staff and independent experts. This was an unprecedented approach by Parliament, and they should be applauded. As the CNSC reports directly to Parliament, only Parliament -- not the government -- could have made such a decision, and their decision was unanimous in both houses. It appears that parliamentarians disagreed with the CNSC because they understood that the benefits of isotope production had also to be weighed in the equation, that the risk of an accident at the NRU reactor continues to be very low, and that the further reduction in risk from the addition of a seismically qualified starter for a second cooling pump is not large.
Overriding the CNSC is not a good way to ensure nuclear safety. The CNSC must remain independent of both licensees and the government. However, it does need to take account of the benefits to society that come from the facilities that it licenses without reducing its focus on safety. Every human activity has risks and benefits. Parliament needs to find a way to advise its regulatory bodies, including the CNSC, on what level of risk from industrial activity is acceptable to Canadian society at large, and how risks and benefits should be balanced. This is a difficult and controversial subject that needs public debate, and it is Parliament's true business.
John G. Waddington is a former director general of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.