Why Pickering-A Should Not Be Restarted Without Approval by an Independent Panel Review

Norman Rubin

November 14, 2000

Energy Probe’s comments to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission on the Pickering A – Return to Service, Environmental Assessment SCREENING REPORT – CNSC Meeting, December 14, 2000

Norman Rubin is Energy Probe’s Director of Nuclear Research and Senior Policy Analyst

Like a few of the staff of the CNSC (then called the AECB), I participated extensively in the Federal Environmental Assessment Review of Atomic Energy of Canada’s (AECL’s) plan to bury Canada’s high-level nuclear waste in a deep hole in the Canadian Shield. That was an independent Panel Review of the same sort that is required for the Pickering-A restart. I learned many lessons in that Review – several of which were also learned by the CNSC staff participants, and many of which have relevance to the Pickering-A Restart decision. Those lessons include the following:

There is a bigger difference between an independent Environmental Assessment Panel Review and a CNSC review, than there is between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse.

For example, the AECB/CNSC’s recommendation at that Panel Review was that AECL be given approval to proceed with site selection for its disposal plan. The panel withheld that approval.

AECB/CNSC’s position was that the AECL concept had been shown to be, or was known to be, acceptable and safe. The panel unanimously concluded that the concept was not acceptable, and was divided on its safety, writing two opposing chapters in its final report.

In the context of a process run by intelligent, well-educated nuclear-establishment “outsiders” with a broad range of expertise, the views of AECB/CNSC staff – and the regulatory positions taken by the AECB/CNSC itself – were often revealed to be part of the problem that needed to be solved. Indeed, the independent Panel made extensive recommendations for reform of the AECB itself, most of which have not been implemented.

The differences between AECB/CNSC positions and those of the independent Panel were not primarily based on different opinions of fact, but were primarily based on different values. For example,

AECB/CNSC, like AECL, placed great value on the claims that deep geological disposal could provide “passive” safety, without any need for future intervention; the panel heard that ordinary Canadians didn’t trust such long-term predictions.

AECB/CNSC, like AECL, placed great value on the responsibility of our generation to relieve future generations of costs and responsibilities of dealing with nuclear waste, with unmonitored, irretrievable deep geological disposal; the panel heard that ordinary Canadians (including those in AECL-sponsored focus groups) thought our descendants would prefer to have more choices and control.

As we have outlined in our earlier submissions, it is largely these kinds of non-technical, non-factual values decisions – decisions which AECB/CNSC routinely makes, but (a) on which AECB/CNSC has no special expertise and (b) which AECB/CNSC never faces squarely as the values decisions they are – that make the Pickering-A restart decision so interesting and important and controversial to nuclear-establishment “outsiders”, and so routine and open-and-shut to OPG and AECB/CNSC. If there is an independent Panel Review of this decision, we expect it to be as educational for AECB/CNSC Reactor Licensing staff as the High-Level Waste Review was for the staff of that branch. Among the issues that we predict will look very different to “normal people” than to AECB/CNSC and its staff are the following:

The relative weight attached to Pickering-A’s never-discussed “world class” toxic inventory and to the frequently-discussed “world class” efforts made to keep it contained;(1)

The enormous quantity of verbiage spent (within the nuclear establishment) on the possibility that low-level radiation is less harmful than predicted by the best-fit mathematical model, compared to the mathematically equivalent possibilty that it is more harmful(2);

The scant attention given to the actual estimated health risks of predicted radiation exposures from routine and accidental releases from Pickering-A, compared to the enormous time spent comparing those exposures to radiation exposures from naturally occurring terrestrial radionuclides and cosmic rays from outer space – a comparison often viewed as irrelevant outside the nuclear establishment;(3)

The “discrepancies and dichotomies in the definitions of acceptable risk” in the regulation of radioactive pollution and non-radioactive carcinogens were to have received a scientific review by the federal government, but the review turned to “political science” when the authors decided to reject their terms of reference. Using those “discrepancies and dichotomies”, CNSC routinely permits radioactive pollution levels – and estimated health risk levels – that other regulations and regulators in Canada would forbid;(4)

While the decision to restart Pickering-A will obviously create quantities of highly radioactive fuel bundles and of radioactive tritium – a fact that is very relevant to “normal people” – those quantities are “not relevant” to this “Environmental Assessment” because those wastes will be transported off-site!(5)

The total impacts of exposing people and the environment to radioactive toxins outside the immediate area around Pickering-A are ignored by OPG and AECB/CNSC in the EA, because the individual exposures at that distance have dropped below some arbitrary level – without mention that the number of such exposures has been rising just as fast with distance!(6)

The question of trust – in effect, the answer to the question “Have I ever lied to you before?” – is an essential one to “normal people” put at risk by another, but receives scant attention from AECB/CNSC. For example, I have never heard any spokesperson from AECB correct or contradict a falsely reassuring statement by a licensee, or another government agency. And this Screening Report – apparently issued by CNSC staff – itself contains factual and technical errors.(7)

The questions of the need, alternatives, costs, and benefits of the Pickering-A restart are essential to a considered decision on the subject to “ordinary” Canadians, but are considered irrelevant or “beyond the scope” to CNSC.

“Ordinary” Canadians are almost always more concerned about reactor safety after they learn of the existence and nature of the Nuclear Liability Act, and the protection it gives nuclear operators like Pickering-A’s OPG, in case of a catastrophic accident – like the accidents this EA doesn’t analyze, because they’re so unlikely to occur. But the CNSC administers the Nuclear Liability Act, and led its defense in Court, against a legal challenge brought by Energy Probe, the City of Toronto, and Dr. Rosalie Bertell.

In short, this decision simply cannot properly and legitimately be made by CNSC, because it rests primarily on values on which CNSC has no special expertise, and on which it has already taken a position contrary to the values of “ordinary” Canadians. Moreover, the involvement of CNSC staff in the drafting of a flawed EA for this project further compromises CNSC’s perceived, and actual, independence.


1. On the former, see EA Addendum, Appendix I, comments-responses #403 and #404 – and especially their completely unresponsive “responses”!

2. See EA Addendum, Appendix I, comment-response #401.

3. See (e.g.) EA Addendum, Appendix I, comments-responses #403 & #405.

4. See (e.g.) EA Addendum, Appendix I, comment-response #421 (Environment Canada).

5. See EA Addendum, Appendix I, comment-response #399.

6. See EA Addendum, Appendix I, comment-response #402. In Appendix L.4, it is revealed that the EA’s reference to a “50 km” radius – repeated in Appendix L, as if it were at least partially correct! – actually should refer to an area that cannot possibly exceed 40 km, at the extreme limit: “· 20 km from water supply plants within 20 km of PNGS” And that area is the largest of those considered. In other words, the population actually considered “worth counting” is significantly smaller than indicated in the EA.

7. In addition to the “20km + 20km = 50km” error noted above, we highlight one error that must surely embarrass CNSC as much as OPG: The presentation of the reason that Pickering-A was shut down in December of 1997 never even mentions the fact that operation after December 31 with its inadequate Emergency Shutdown System would have violated the station’s safety license from AECB – a fact surely known by both OPG staff and CNSC staff! See EA Addendum, Appendix I, comment-response #532 (Town of Ajax).

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:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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