Energy Probe’s comments to the AECB on the Environmental Assessment of the Pickering A Restart

Norman Rubin

June 29, 2000

Dear Sirs:

Following are Energy Probe’s comments to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission(1) on Ontario Power Generation’s Draft Submission to AECB entitled “Environmental Assessment Report, Pickering A Return to Service”, dated April 2000.

As in our earlier comments of December 1, 1999, on AECB’s draft “Scope of Assessment” for this project, we divide our comments into two general categories: Process Concerns and Substantive Concerns.

While it may be tempting for AECB/CNSC to focus primarily on the so-called Substantive Concerns – as appears to have occurred with our earlier comments – we would urge you to avoid that temptation. As discussed below, we believe our Process Concerns are more fundamental and therefore more important than our Substantive Concerns. Specifically, we believe that proper resolution of our Process Concerns is probably both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the proper resolution of our Substantive Concerns. Moreover, it is our submission that the federal law under which this exercise is being undertaken – the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – not only permits AECB/CNSC to resolve most if not all of our Process Concerns properly, but seems to require that you do so.

A. Process Concerns:

Unfortunately, our process concerns have increased both in number and severity since those earlier comments, and partly as the result of your agency’s actions and inactions since we submitted those comments.

1. Modern, democratic, open regulation cannot be, and is not, done inside a “black box”. Our earlier comments on AECB’s draft “Scope of Assessment” for this project highlighted the following request – in fact, it was the second sentence in a five-page document:

As always, we would appreciate receiving reasons for AECB’s decisions to accept or reject these recommendations.

We note that AECB has on at least one previous occasion(2) produced a “reasons for decision” document, and thereby joined the post-1980 world of modern, open regulators in democratic societies. Unfortunately, the receipt and consideration of public comments on your draft “Scope of Assessment” for this enormous and important project was not such an occasion, and your final “Scope of Assessment” for this project was issued without comment. Any of the parties, including Energy Probe, who took the trouble to comment on your draft were essentially left to hold the draft and final documents “up to the light” to guess whether our comments had been dealt with, considered extensively but rejected, misunderstood, laughed at, or lost in the mail.(3) If – speaking totally hypothetically – a regulatory agency and its staff viewed public concerns, public values, and public comments as a nuisance rather than an essential step toward arriving at a wise decision, such treatment of public comment could be expected to minimize the nuisance.

Once again, we urge AECB/CNSC in the present instance to issue, along with your final EA or reference to the Minister, a Reasons for Decision document that summarizes public comments and responds to them. We hereby consent to have Energy Probe’s name attached to our comments in that document.

2. Wisdom cannot reliably achieved while standing on one foot. Given the extremely tight schedule AECB staff were operating under – in the order of a week or two between the deadline for public comment on the draft document and the scheduled issuance of the final document – it is perhaps understandable that it was essentially impossible to produce a Reasons for Decision document. But that absurdly tight schedule, and the continuing absurdly tight schedule of this entire review, is itself a barrier to modern, democratic, open regulation, and to wise decision-making on important matters of great public concern. It also interferes with AECB/CNSC’s duty to ensure that justice is not only done, but is perceived to be done – i.e., the AECB’s quick production of a final document in response to extensive public comments gives the appearance that those comments were not carefully considered, or that the final document was at least partly prepared before the comments were received. This appearance is obviously not in the best interest of AECB/CNSC, or of good governance in our society, and should be actively opposed.

We understand that the review schedule is largely under the control of AECB/CNSC, and we urge you to allow time for volunteer and non-profit groups to review, think about, discuss, and comment on the extensive, complicated, and important information involved in this process. We also urge you to allow time for AECB/CNSC to consider such comments carefully, and to document and explain that consideration.

While we would expect OPG to be impatient about the restart of a large facility like Pickering A, we urge AECB/CNSC to resist or overrule OPG’s predictable impatience. We also understand that OPG’s schedule for the Pickering A restart has slipped somewhat during this process (and not as a result of it), and that its estimated costs have risen, decreasing whatever societal desirability and business-case benefit the restart may have originally had. In other words, whatever perceived urgency may have been attached to this project should have lessened in the past year. Having clearly made multi-billion-dollar mistakes in building these reactors in the first place, Canada and Ontario should not rush to make more.

3. These decisions must be made in a full Environmental Assessment Panel Review and not by AECB/CNSC. And there must be a full assessment of need and alternatives. We will not repeat here our earlier comments on these three process concerns, made in sections A.2, A.3 and A.4 of our December 1, 1999 submission.

We do note, however, that since that submission was made, the City of Toronto and the City of Pickering have both issued unanimous resolutions calling for a full Environmental Assessment Panel Review of this decision. Whether AECB/CNSC is or is not an ideal and omniscient regulator whose decisions are consistently based on truth and wisdom, the awkward position of AECB/CNSC as “Responsible Authority” (essentially proponent-claimant, judge, and jury in one) – coupled with AECB/CNSC’s inability to harmonize public and local values to its own and its perceived closeness to nuclear-industry views on many areas of public concern – has created a problem in decision-making and governance that cries out for an independent review. We urge AECB/CNSC to trigger a full Environmental Assessment Panel Review of this EA and this project.

We note the discussion of the Panel Review option in AECB’s Final Scope of Assessment Document:

3.2 Options for Other Types of Assessment under CEAA

Section 25 of the CEAA provides the AECB with the ability, at any time during the assessment, to request the Minister of the Environment to refer the project to a federal review panel.

. . .

A request for referral to a review panel would be made if the AECB were to conclude that it is uncertain whether the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, taking into account the proposed mitigation measures or if public concerns warrant it. The AECB will continue to review the project in relation to these criteria periodically during the screening process. (p. A-2)

Regardless of AECB/CNSC’s views on the aforementioned issues of “likelihood” and “significance”, we believe that it is undeniable that public concerns warrant a request for referral of this project to a review panel.

We also understand that it is within the provisions of the CEAA for a federal review panel (though not a screening review) to assess the need for, and alternatives to, a project – an assessment that is sorely needed in this case.

B. Substantive Concerns:

Given time and resource constraints, and given our process concerns, we have only conducted a very cursory review of the approximately 1250 pages in the primary documents submitted by OPG(4). As a result we will only comment briefly on a select few topics. Please do not take our silence on any issue as support or acceptance of OPG’s draft submission. We reserve the right to review and comment on any part of this document in any forum in the future, regardless of its inclusion or exclusion in these comments. Indeed, we look forward to the opportunity to reexamine and comment on these matters before our requested and anticipated Environmental Assessment Panel Review.

We note as well that the draft document (though not by any means an adequate basis for making the decision to pursue this project) contains passages that apparently achieve a new and higher standard in nuclear-industry discourse on environmental matters. Indeed, even those sections selected for criticism below because of statements and omissions that are false, biased, or misleading, seem to this author to contain some concessions to truth that did not appear in OPG, Ontario Hydro, AECL, or even AECB documents a short time ago. We look forward to praising these passages more specifically before an Environmental Assessment Panel Review.

1. The combined effects of aging and obsolescence have still not been adequately addressed: We will not repeat our December comments on the subject, note B. 6. But we do note that the issue was incorporated in the AECB’s final “Scope of Assessment”, as follows:

6.3 Description of the Project

. . .

General Information, Design Characteristics and Normal Operations:

. . .

the key operational components of the plant (following completion of current upgrade work), including a discussion of component age and wear issues where relevant to future environmental performance and reliability; [emphasis added]

Indeed, OPG’s draft EA acknowledges this particular concern as a “key concern” for the public, on p. 5-24 : “There is concern about the safety of old nuclear reactors. Is PNGS-A worth refurbishing?” This key concern is supposedly dealt with in section 4. But section 4 apparently does not contain any of the words “age”, “aging”, or “wear”, or any appearance of the letter-string “obsole”. It would appear that OPG has responded to this key (and rational) public concern with only the following unsatisfying platitudes: “The PNGS-A plant has been operating safely for 28 years. Safety is OPG’s number one priority for staff, the community and the environment. If PNGS-A were not safe, it would not be returned to service.” Clearly, it’s time for a Panel Review!

2. OPG seems to think that toxins and eco-toxins have no impact if they go off-site! The following passage may need no further comment – except to hope that it has as little basis in Environment Assessment law as it has in logic: Heavy Water Recovery and Re-use

. . .

The off-site effects associated with the processing and storage of radioactive wastes and tritiated heavy water are regulate [sic] through the respective licenses of the facilities involved and are outside the scope of assessment. (p. 4-22)

We look forward to debating this issue before an independent Panel Review.

3. Impacts must be quantified and judged acceptable, and not just legal: We will not duplicate our comments from December 1999 on this topic (section B.3). But we note that AECB’s Final “Scope of Assessment” addressed these concerns in several places, including as follows:

6.6.1 Assessment of Effects Caused by the Project

. . .

It may be relevant, but not sufficient to only assert that an effect is, for example, less than a specific government guideline level without describing the effect in quantitative or qualitative terms. The likely effects should be described before the criteria for judging significance are applied . . .

But OPG’s draft submission seems to honour this requirement in the breach. For example, the discussion of radioactive dose to humans (individuals and populations) does not provide any quantitative estimate of health risks, but instead compares them to regulatory criteria, arcane definitions of de minimis doses, unavoidable doses from the environment, and other less relevant quantities. One example out of many:

10.2 Potential Health Effects Associated with Radioactivity

Likely effects associated with radiation exposure have been addressed in Section 7.2.1. The following provides a summary of the estimated radiation doses to workers and general public as a result of the project. The estimated radiation doses are compared with the regulatory dose limits established by the AECB and with the variation in natural background radiation levels in Ontario. [p. 10-3]

The referenced Section 7.2.1 is no better, in our submission.

4. The passages on the health risks of radiation are biased and misleading (though we’ve seen worse!): For one example out of many:


. . .

Linear Non-Threshold (LNT) Model

. . .

. . . Overall, the advice of the ACRP [390] which suggests the continued use of LNT for regulatory purposes seems prudent with the caveat that, at low doses and dose rates, there is a possibility of no (excess) risk. (p. F-16)

In the field of pollution and public health, the calculation of doses that correspond to acceptably low risk levels — i.e., lifetime risks on the order of 1 fatal cancer per million — can never be directly proven correct, but must be calculated by extrapolation with mathematical models. That is the basis of (for example) drinking water objectives for carcinogenic chemicals, and it must also be the basis for comparable limits and standards for radioactive substances. It is technically true in both cases that science cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that such small exposures actually cause cancer; it is equally true in both cases that science cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that such small exposures don’t cause much more cancer than the model indicates. Indeed, if the model is the best fit to the evidence (as the linear risk model is to the radiation-cancer data for most forms of radiation and cancer), then it is equally likely that the truth is above the model as below it.

It is biased and misleading to mention one half of an essentially symmetrical uncertainty band, without mentioning the other half. Since the other half is of great public concern, we need an independent Panel Review.

We also look forward to debating, before an independent Panel Review, the significance of the observed excess in childhood leukemia mortality around the Pickering and Bruce Nuclear Generating Stations. Since AECB has taken one extreme view on this controversy, AECB/CNSC staff may be expected to take the opposite side of that debate. We like our chances – but only if there is an independent Panel Review.

5. The calculation of population collective dose is important, but the discussion of population collective dose is absurd.

In calculating the human health impacts of a toxic facility that emits toxic pollution, one obviously meaningful measure is the total amount of harm – e.g., the total estimated human health risk – the facility’s toxic emissions will cause. For Pickering-A’s radioactive emissions to air and water, these collective population health risks could be calculated from an estimate of the population collective radiation dose caused by Pickering-A’s emissions. Unfortunately, the passage where OPG might have presented that figure reads as follows: Likely Effects on the General Public

. . .

Population Collective Dose

Radioactive dose can also be assessed through the estimation of the radiological dose received by a population living within approximately 50 km of the facility. The dose to a typical member of this population will be lower than the doses to the critical group member since the typical receptor will usually be exposed to lower concentrations and have average consumption characteristics when compared to a critical receptor. The population collective dose is the sum of radiological doses received by the individuals and provides a measure of facility performance. Although not required to do so by the AECB, OPG has continued to estimate, and report, the population collective dose for PNGS.

It is arbitrary, self-serving, and unworthy for OPG to stop calculating “population collective dose” 50 km from the source of its pollution. Perhaps if OPG were going to eliminate radioisotopes with half-lives over an hour or two, it would be reasonable(5) – but OPG has made no such commitment. Pickering’s radioactive noble gas and tritium emissions to the atmosphere circle the globe many times and expose most of the world’s population and their children and their children, throughout their lifetimes, to incremental doses of radiation – admittedly very small ones. OPG’s tritium emissions to the Great Lakes are now apparently responsible for at least half of the tritium exposure for the large population – in Canada and the U.S. – consuming water from Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario(6).

Integrating those individually tiny (and admittedly uncertain) estimated health risks with that enormous population put at risk would create an estimate of “total population dose” and “total population health risk”. Judgments of the significance or the acceptability of that integrated figure would depend strongly on human values – i.e., on the biases and environmental “religion” of the individuals making the judgments. But the math should be done before arguments and judgments are made about the significance or the acceptability of those estimated impacts.

Indeed, much of the nuclear debate – including matters that impact directly on the significance or the acceptability of Pickering-A’s environmental impacts – hinges on similar human values. A nuclear reactor complex like Pickering A is arguably the most toxic human-made facility on earth. In other words, a standard calculation of the integrated toxicity of Pickering-A’s contents or its annual output of toxins(7) would, we believe, produce a higher result than a similar calculation at any other human-made facility. Many Canadians react strongly negatively to toxic, ecotoxic, carcinogenic technologies like nuclear power, and wish they were phased out in favour of more benign technologies. On the other hand, the vast majority of Pickering-A’s toxic materials are contained in engineered structures for now, and may (or may not) be effectively contained in engineered structures for the many millennia during which some of them will remain toxic.(8) The remainder are emitted to the environment, a practice that is justified by AECB/CNSC-approved calculations that focus only on the impacts of immediate exposure to the immediately adjacent population, and apply “acceptable risk” values that would not be considered acceptable in other regulatory arenas.

Canadians who support nuclear power – like the AECB/CNSC and its licensees – tend to focus on the engineered containment systems for the enormous quantity of poison, rather than on the poison itselfor the residual probability that much of it will escape.(9) Canadians who oppose or question nuclear power tend to focus on the latter and discount the importance of the former. These values conflicts cause significant public concern and controversy, which should be examined and partly resolved in an independent panel review.

Sincerely yours,

Norman Rubin

Director, Nuclear Research

and Senior Policy Analyst

1. The Atomic Energy Control Board, Canada’s federal nuclear regulator and the “Responsible Authority” for this Environmental Assessment, has recently been recreated under new legislation and renamed the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. We will generally refer to this agency in this document as “AECB/CNSC”, unless the context is clearly historical. Ontario Power Generation (“OPG”) is itself one of the successor organizations to Ontario Hydro, and owns and operates the generating stations formerly owned by Ontario Hydro, including Pickering A.

2. The occasion was the issuance of the Regulatory Guide G-129, The Requirement to Keep All Exposures as Low as Reasonably Achievable, and was in response to public comments on the earlier Consultative Document C-129. Energy Probe had included the following request in its comments on C-129. dated November 30, 1994:

In the past, AECB has not issued detailed responses, comments, or Reasons for Decision in response to public comments on Consultative Documents — an omission that has received criticism from several public stakeholders, including Energy Probe. At various times in the past, AECB staff have indicated their intention to change this policy, at least in certain cases. We hereby request that these comments not vanish into the usual void, but that AECB issue, along with its final Regulatory Document, Reasons for Decision that summarize public comments and respond to them. We hereby consent to have Energy Probe’s name attached to these comments in that document.

3. Our own “holding the documents up to the light” exercise suggests that our comments in section B.1, B.3, and B.6 were received with favour and at least partly reflected in the final document; our comments in section B.5 were expressly rejected; and the remaining six were either lost in the mail, or at least “vanished into the usual void”.

4. We note with great approval the fact that OPG and its consultant Golder Associates has chosen to freely circulate the draft EA document in digital form, on a CD-ROM. Unfortunately, the (.pdf) files as widely distributed were in “locked” form, which did not permit public commenters to quote from the files by the usual “cut-and-paste” procedure. When I phoned Golder Associates staff on this matter, they quickly received OPG’s approval to send me a second CD-ROM, with “unlocked” files, and promptly did so. I acknowledge their cooperation in this matter, but regret the fact that most recipients of the CD-ROM were unable to quote from the distributed files without re-typing the passages in question – an anachronistic nuisance in year 2000.

5. A wind speed of 25 km/hr is extremely common in Southern Ontario – perhaps one day per month on average – while one of 50 km/hr is encountered perhaps a few days per month on average. Pickering-A’s radioactive plume would exit the 50-km radius roughly two hours after release in the former wind conditions, and roughly one hour after release in the latter.

6. For example, Ontario Hydro’s and OPG’s annual radioactivity surveys typically find mid-lake or “background” tritium levels of approximately 9 Bq/L in Lakes Huron and Ontario far from the Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington nuclear complexes, but levels of approximately 4 Bq/L in “control” lakes without CANDU reactors. Although the 9 Bq/L tritium level in Lakes Huron and Ontario (and the presumably similar level in Lake Erie) are apparently 50% or more attributable to the environmental impacts from its nuclear stations, OPG typically subtracts that number from the higher levels near Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington in calculating the stations’ dose to the “critical group” and the local population! We assume, but have not verified, that the same mistake has been made in the calculations in the draft EA.

7. Such a calculation could quantify the volume of drinking water needed to dilute the contents to a level corresponding to a standardized drinking water standard, including levels of carcinogens at a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of excess cancer. The more common method – to calculate the volume of drinking water needed to dilute the contents to a level corresponding to actual drinking water standards – seriously underestimates the toxicity of radioactive materials, because drinking water standards routinely allow hundreds or thousands of times higher cancer risks from radioactive carcinogens than from non-radioactive carcinogens. AECB has consistently been part of a polluter-led coalition to preserve that regulatory double standard.

8. The values-laden conflict over the safety and acceptability of the Canadian government’s plan to “dispose” of nuclear spent fuel deep underground was recently revealed in depth at the federal Environmental Assessment hearing on that subject. Among other conclusions, that independent panel review rejected AECB’s recommendations on the acceptability of the concept, and on the next steps toward “disposal”. The panel also made extensive recommendations for reform of the AECB, most of which have not been implemented.

9. AECB has always taken this view. For example, it has never even required nuclear-reactor owners to estimate the total toxicity contained, or produced, in their facilities. And emissions are tracked and “regulated” primarily with measures that credit all dilution to the point of impingement, as if AECB believed that “the solution to pollution is dilution”. The point of impingement is always based on human receptors, as if other species have no value.

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