Energy Probe position paper

Norman Rubin
Energy Probe
December 2, 1999

Dear Sirs:

Following are Energy Probe’s comments on AECB’s draft “Scope of Assessment” for the Pickering NGS-A return to service Environmental Assessment. As always, we would appreciate receiving reasons for AECB’s decisions to accept or reject these recommendations. And we await the opportunity to be involved in the substantive issues of this Assessment. We divide our comments into two general categories: Process Concerns and Substantive Concerns.

A. Process Concerns:

1. Construction Work in Progress: The applicant, Ontario Power Generation (“OPG”), is currently spending considerable sums on activities that will not be needed unless the application succeeds. These activities prejudge and prejudice the outcome of the present Assessment and must properly wait for the conclusion of the Assessment. We urge the AECB to ensure that OPG’s activities during the Assessment are restricted to those that are required for the conduct of the Assessment and the licensing application. Failure to do so runs the risk that the Assessment will be perceived as “window dressing” or a “rubber stamp”, rather than a review of potential Environmental Impacts that might lead to fundamental changes in (or rejection of) the application.

2. The absence of a full Environmental Assessment Panel Review:We believe that the seriousness and magnitude of the Pickering-A Restart decision and its potential impacts justify a review by an independent panel under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

3. The perceived (and real) independence of AECB as judge: In many important subject areas of this decision and therefore this Assessment, the AECB has already established policies which favour the interests of the applicant (OPG) and conflict with the wishes and values of large segments of the public. Among these we would include the following areas: (1) AECB’s acceptance of unacceptable “financial guarantees” for the ongoing creation of toxic and eco-toxic wastes, decommissioning liabilities, and accident contamination cleanup costs that will burden future Ontarians (and perhaps other Canadians) for cleanup costs that are caused by the activities of today’s Ontario customers of nuclear-generated electricity. Indeed, we note that some of the people properly responsible for bearing these environmental liabilities have already left the Province of Ontario, or died, without bearing their share of these liabilities. (2) AECB’s acceptance of, administration of, and spirited defense of, the Nuclear Liability Act, a legal scheme that currently limits the legal responsibility of OPG for a potentially catastrophic release of toxic and eco-toxic substances, to an absurd $75 million. Such a scheme naturally and logically increases the eagerness of OPG to operate inherently unsafe technology like the Pickering-A Nuclear Generating Station, and decreases their incentives to take all possible care to avoid catastrophic releases, and to implement or insist on all possible emergency measures to protect their neighbours from the consequences of such releases, should they occur. (3) AECB’s ongoing acceptance and administration of a regulatory scheme for so-called “radiation protection” which permits neighbours of (e.g.) Pickering-A to be exposed to much greater risks of serious health effects like cancer than would be tolerated by the regulators of non-radioactive carcinogens. The Advisory Committees to AECB’s President recently participated in a multi-year exercise which was charged with examining the dichotomies and discrepancies between the definitions of “acceptable risk” in the regulation of radioactive and non-radioactive carcinogens, but defiantly refused to follow those terms of reference. (4) AECB’s unjustifiable compromise decision in the matter of Pickering-A’s inadequate shutdown system, i.e., requiring only an upgrade to “SDSE” rather than to the minimum capability required for a shutdown system in a new nuclear generating station. It is especially disturbing that AECB’s decision explicitly considered the possibility that requiring a more elaborate and expensive upgrade could result in the early shutdown of the station.

We respectfully submit that good decision-making, regulatory legitimacy, and even the enlightened self-interest of the AECB (and its successor the Canadian Nuclear Safety Agency) would all be well served by a review of these important matters and others by a panel that is independent of the AECB, rather than by AECB itself.

4. Assessment of need and alternatives: We are concerned that AECB’s application of regulatory standards in general, and its assessment of potential environmental impacts under this Assessment, proceed under the unexamined assumption that there are significant social benefits from nuclear activities, like the restart and operation of Pickering-A. We urge the Board to examine that assumption expressly, and encourage submissions on that topic. Specifically, we believe we can demonstrate that the operation of OPG’s reactors to date, including Pickering-A, has diminished the socio-economic well-being of the people of Ontario and Canada, and that further investment in, and operation of, Pickering-A is quite likely to further diminish that well-being. We further note that this matter concerns the physical environment directly (as well as the socio-economic impacts that an environmental assessment must consider) since much of this diminution of well-being has been accomplished by the creation of large quantities of toxic and eco-toxic substances. Disposing of these substances, according to a recent study by OPG’s predecessor company (Ontario Hydro), was estimated to cost a staggering $18.7 billion in 1998 dollars, a sum that has not been paid by electricity customers, and which exceeds the Ontario Government’s current estimate of the value of all of OPG’s assets, including its nuclear plants, its fossil-fuelled plants, and its hydroelectric plants like the Sir Adam Beck plants at Niagara Falls!

Rationally, the benefits from restarting Pickering-A can only be assessed in the context of available alternatives, a subject on which we believe AECB has little information or expertise. We urge AECB to broaden this discussion to include need and alternatives, in an attempt to avoid further insults to the public well-being.

B. Substantive Concerns:

1. Timeframe and treatment of radioactive wastes and decommissioning: AECB’s Draft Scope of Assessment for an Environmental Assessment (EA) … states on p. 9:

“The time frame for the assessment will be the duration of operation of the Pickering NGS-A facility following the return to service. This time frame should be clearly defined and the rationale for it provided by OPG. Within this time frame, the focus will be on identifying those direct and cumulative environmental effects which have a reasonable probability of occurrence. In addition, OPG will be expected to discuss the status of decommissioning planning for the facility; any future application for decommissioning approval would be subject to a separate environmental assessment.”

We do not understand how the environmental impacts of the restart of a nuclear station, with its attendant and unavoidable creation of million-year radioactive waste, can be rationally and adequately assessed over a 20-year time frame! As you are aware, an independent federally appointed environmental assessment panel, after nine years of hearings and deliberation, recently found Canada’s concept for the ultimate disposal of those wastes unacceptable, and could not reach consensus on its safety. In both cases, the independent panel did not endorse the stated position of AECB, which recommended that the panel approve the concept and allow Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) to proceed to siting a waste repository.

Any decision about the acceptability of the environmental impacts of returning Pickering-A to service must surely consider the environmental impacts of the wastes that Pickering-A is expected to create. And the time frame of that consideration must surely be the time frame of the impacts of the wastes, not the time frame of their creation! Yet the time frame would seem to preclude meaningful assessment, and the serious issue of radioactive waste creation is apparently not addressed in the document. (The AECB’s draft Scope of Assessment apparently contains the character-string “waste” only twice: on p. 7, section 6.2, Scope of the Factors, subsection Description of the project, and on p. 18, where a “household hazardous waste facility” appears on a list of Planned Physical Works / Activities.)

Furthermore, as discussed briefly above, discussion of the mitigation of the possible environmental effects of those highly toxic and eco-toxic wastes — and of their indirect socio-economic impacts — must include the provision of funding from those responsible for their creation to those far in the future who will likely be required to mitigate, or manage, or dispose, or even dispose again. Leaving this “environmental impact waiting to happen” to the next generation of Canadians without leaving the wherewithal to address the problem is unsustainable and irresponsible; doing so after holding an environmental impacts assessment process that fails to assess it is absurd.

We assume that the above-quoted passage’s last sentence (“In addition, OPG will be expected to discuss the status of decommissioning planning for the facility; any future application for decommissioning approval would be subject to a separate environmental assessment.”) must be understood in the context of AECB’s somewhat unusual use of the word “decommissioning”.I.e ., to AECB (but not, we submit, to the rest of us), decommissioning refers more to the end of a licensee’s responsibility for a facility, than to the physical cleanup, dismantlement, or restoration that may be necessary to relieve the licensee of further responsibility. Looking at decommissioning in its more common, and more physical sense, it is an act of environmental mitigation and remediation which must logically be committed to as part of the decision to start, or restart, a facility like Pickering-A. The threat to withhold “approval” for this activity is primarily a threat to the environment and human health. In this context, we would urge AECB to require much more than a general discussion of the status of decommissioning planning for the facility; AECB must require, before restart, that clear and concrete plans exist, and that secure, reliable, and equitable funding to carry out those plans — and not merely the commitment from a current government to bind some future government to tax future Canadians — is in place.

2.Liability limition for nuclear accidents: As alluded to briefly above, we believe that we human beings are far too prone to cause catastrophes when we are held fully accountable for the consequences of our actions, especially when dealing with huge quantities of toxic materials in inherently hazardous facilities. A rational response would be to require artificially elevated levels of accountability from those who deal with such materials and such facilities. Instead, the Parliament of Canada in 1970, under heavy lobbying from the nuclear industry and the newly formed Canadian Nuclear Association, passed a law that artificially decreases the level of accountability or responsibility of the designers, builders, owners, and operators of nuclear reactors. In the case of the designers and builders of nuclear reactors, responsibility for the off-site consequences of a catastrophic accident has been completely eliminated. In the case of the owners and operators of nuclear reactors, responsibility for the off-site consequences of a catastrophic accident has been legally capped at $75 million — a tiny fraction of the consequences of several postulated, analyzed, and completely possible CANDU reactor accidents.

Reasonable people certainly may, and do, disagree on the magnitude of the impact of this legislated irresponsibility on the risks of catastrophic accidents. But reasonable people cannot disagree on the direction or mathematical “sign” of that impact.

We also note that the legislation also, in plain English, fails to guarantee full compensation to the victims of such a hypothetical but completely possible accident. Such compensation, if clearly guarantee, would arguable constitute mitigation for the socioeconomic impacts flowing from the environmental impacts of an accident that will unfortunately be completely possible in Pickering-A, if and only if it is returned to service.

Fully aware of AECB’s historic and ongoing role in justifying and defending the Nuclear Liability Act (and AECB’s lack of authority to overturn a federal law), we urge AECB to ensure that Pickering-A does not return to service with this unfortunately perverse incentive in place, and this unreasonable lack of mitigation of possible impacts.

3. Impacts must be quantified and judged acceptable, and not just legal: We note that AECB’s draft Scope of Assessment repeatedly refers to comparisons between various impacts and regulatory criteria, dose limits, etc. While we appreciate that such comparisons are one way to characterize the significance of environmental impacts, we urge the AECB to require OPG to assess and present the estimated impacts themselves in the clearest and most meaningful terms before comparing them to regulatory criteria and limits. E.g., lifetime risk of a serious health effect from a public radiation dose must be presented along with the comparison to (AECB’s) dose limits, and total risk of a serious accident over the remaining life of the Pickering complex must be presented along with the comparison to (AECB’s) safety criteria. Only this form of presentation will allow interested citizens at risk the chance to judge for themselves whether or not AECB’s regulatory criteria represent risk levels that are actually acceptable to those at risk.

4. Public health anomalies in the community must be discussed: Epidemiological studies funded by AECB have uncovered (1) a 40% excess of childhood (age 0-14) leukemia mortality in the areas around Pickering and Bruce (p=0.03 one-tailed) and (2) a statistically significant excess of Down’s Syndrome births in Pickering (p<0.05 one-tailed) and a nearly significant excess in Ajax. These excesses may or may not be chance occurrences or artifacts. If they are not random occurrences, they may or may not be related to the past operation of the Pickering-A station. But these findings and these questions must be discussed and assessed in this Environmental Assessment. (We note for the record that AECB has repeatedly downplayed the significance of these findings, and that Energy Probe has long called for follow-up studies, on both childhood leukemia mortality and Down’s Syndrome births.)

5. Generic and long-standing safety issues must be systematically assessed and resolved prior to restart: Without duplicating the excellent list of safety issues that has been presented in the September 8, 1999, memo to AECB from Irene Kock of Durham Nuclear Awareness (DNA) and David Steele of Pickering Ajax Citizens Together (PACT), we would urge AECB to produce a comprehensive list of safety issues that must be systematically assessed and resolved prior to restart. We note that “Post-accident filter effectiveness” is a generic CANDU safety issue that has special significance to Pickering-A. We also note that another generic CANDU safety issue — “Reactor operation with a flux tilt” — was inadvertently exacerbated at Pickering-A in a past enhancement to Pickering’s chronically under-designed shutdown system. Each of OPG’s planned and ongoing “upgrades” must be thoroughly enough analyzed to ensure that it, too, does not create new hazards in these inherently hazardous reactors.

6. The combined effects of aging and obsolescence have still not been adequately addressed: In 1987, Energy Probe presented a study entitled The Hazards of Old Reactors to the Ontario Nuclear Safety Review, in the presence of numerous representatives of the AECB. Although our findings and recommendations were strongly resisted at the time by Ontario Hydro, AECL, and AECB, we believe that time has been kind to that report. We observe that only some of our recommendations have been implemented 12 years later, and we urge the AECB to take this opportunity to revisit them, in the light of subsequent developments and discoveries. (We would be pleased to supply AECB with copies, on request.)

Sincerely yours,

Norman Rubin
Director, Nuclear Research and Senior Policy Analyst

This entry was posted in Nuclear Safety. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s