Gary Dimmock – with files from Joanne Laucius
April 10, 2002
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited has a “black spot” on its safety record after four workers were exposed to radiation from plutonium dust in 1999.
The Crown corporation pleaded guilty to six charges under the Canada Labour Code this week and was fined $24,000.
AECL agrees it failed to do things right on May 26, 1999, when it didn’t monitor radiation levels or warn workers about a “known and foreseeable” health risk as the tradesman, who weren’t wearing proper safety suits while repairing a ventilation system at a long-closed plutonium plant in Chalk River.
AECL also pleaded guilty to leaving the workers in a building after “unexpected radiological hazards occurred.”
The exposed workers showered until radiation levels were below measurable levels. The men still work at the plant.
The Ontario Court of Justice disposed of charges after joint submissions were made by AECL, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and Human Resources Development Canada. Matters will not proceed to trial.
“This is definitely a black spot on our safety record and we’ve learned a lot from this,” said company spokeswoman Donna Roach.
“We have an excellent safety record and we are committed to protecting our workers from unanticipated exposures through stringent procedures and monitoring programs,” said company president Robert Van Adel.
“We have been open with our employees, our regulators, our neighbouring communities and the media about this incident from the beginning,” he said.
AECL had originally faced 22 charges laid by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and Human Resources Development Canada. However, there was no evidence on 16 of the charges that there were any adverse effects to workers, the public or the environment.
“We were not happy that this happened. But it did, and we can’t change that fact. And we have taken full responsibility. And we said we’d get to the bottom of it and we did,” said Ms. Roach.
The company said the men were cutting away a component of the ventilation system when plutonium dust began falling from it. They showered twice, reducing contamination to less than detectable levels.
The company reported the accident to the nuclear safety board and later submitted a formal, written report about the events in Building 220, which was shut down in 1957.
The building was commissioned in 1950 to test plutonium for use in various reactors.
A 1994 government memorandum on Building 220 warned that decommissioning the building would present a number of risks.
“To a large extent, the facility was left as it was left in 1957,” the memo said. “It has been over 30 years since anyone worked at this site and there is little remaining operational experience of the contaminated systems. There appear to be gross discrepancies between the as-built drawings and the actual site.”
Atomic Energy Canada, which employs 3,700 people, designs and services CANDU power reactors. There are also three major generating facilities in Ontario, and two uranium refineries.
Norman Rubin, director of nuclear research at the energy industry watchdog Energy Probe, says a $24,000 fine probably isn’t enough to grab AECL’s attention. However, the public embarrassment will probably make the corporation notice, he said.
Of the hundreds of reportable incidents in nuclear power plants and facilities each year, far less than one a year result in charges, he said.
“I certainly hope the public embarrassment will help improve their practices.”