International peer review finds deficiencies in Canada’s nuclear safety framework

February 2020

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released the final report of its review of Canada’s framework for nuclear safety. The review was conducted in September 2019 by a  24-member team including 20 senior regulatory experts from 17 countries, under the aegis of the IAEA’s “Integrated Regulatory Review Service” (IRRS).

The final report was produced by peer reviewers and hosts together. This report took five months, after completion of the mission to be finalized.

The IRRS team conducting the review provided numerous observations, suggestions and recommendations that require action by the Government of Canada and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).  

These include the following: (all text is excerpted from the IAEA report and IAEA safety guides except “Comments” which highlight concerns of civil society groups).

1.  The Government of Canada should enhance the existing policy and establish the associated strategy to give effect to the principles stated in its Radioactive Waste Policy Framework. 

The IAEA requires “To ensure the effective management and control of radioactive waste, the government shall ensure that a national policy and a strategy for radioactive waste management are established.” Further, it requires that “The national strategy for radioactive waste management has to outline arrangements for ensuring the implementation of the national policy.”  The IRRS team found “no evidence”, beyond the principles contained in the Policy Framework, of a “governmental policy or strategy related to radioactive waste management.” It found that the Policy Framework “does not encompass all the needed policy elements nor a detailed strategy or corresponding arrangements… for radioactive waste management in Canada.”

Comment: “The IRRS mission found no evidence… of a government policy or strategy related to radioactive waste management.” This policy and strategy vacuum highlighted by the IAEA has allowed the promotion of substandard radioactive waste facilities that would not isolate radioactive wastes from the biosphere as required by IAEA.This puts Canadians at risk of adverse effects on their drinking water, their health and their property values. If this policy vacuum persists, current and future Canadians will pay for this deficiency with adverse health outcomes and increasing demands on the public purse to remediate poorly designed radioactive waste facilities in the future. This deficiency is a problem given the recent exemption from impact assessment of small nuclear reactors and Canada’s intention to invest heavily in this new technology.

2. The Government of Canada’s decommissioning requirements should align with IAEA guidance that entombment, in which all or part of the facility is encased in a structurally long-lived material, is not an acceptable strategy for planned decommissioning of existing nuclear power plants and future nuclear facilities.

The IRRS team included the following observation in its report: “The CNSC is currently considering two licence applications related to in situ confinement of legacy reactor facilities. This strategy of in-situ confinement is not consistent with SSG-47” (SSG-47 is the 2018 IAEA Specific Safety Guide, Decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants, Research Reactors and Other Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities.) The report suggests that Canada “revise its current and planned requirements in the area of decommissioning to align with the IAEA guidance”. 

The IAEA review states that “The national policy on management of radioactive waste should include decommissioning aspects, including the choice of possible decommissioning strategies” and it “encourages Canada to request an international peer review of the proposed strategy related to in situ confinement [entombment] of legacy reactors.”

Comment: Two proposals for entombment of shut-down reactors are currently undergoing environmental assessment in Canada.  IAEA guidance explicitly prohibits this approach, which essentially consists of dumping concrete on top of the highly radioactive remains of defunct reactors and leaving them in place. Such an approach would allow radioactive contaminants to leak into groundwater and drinking water sources for millennia.

3. The Government of Canada’s legal framework for nuclear safety should “expressly assign the prime responsibility for safety to the person or organization responsible for a facility or an activity,” and should “explicitly stipulate that compliance with regulations and requirements established or adopted by the regulatory body does not relieve the person or organization responsible for a facility or an activity of its prime responsibility for safety.”

The IAEA requires that “The government shall expressly assign the prime responsibility for safety to the person or organization responsible for a facility or an activity.“ 

Comment: Lack of clarity on who is primarily responsible for safety can lead to lax safety practices as occurred in Ontario in 1997, when seven Ontario Power Generation reactors had to be shut down and U.S. experts called in to review the situation. (See “Canada pays price for taking nuclear safety for granted”). This deficiency is a problem given the recent exemption from impact assessment of small nuclear reactors and Canada’s intention to invest heavily in this new technology.

4. The Government of Canada’s legal framework for nuclear safety should explicitly address the principle of “Justification of facilities and activities”, namely that “Facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks must yield an overall benefit.”

The IAEA requires that “For facilities and activities to be considered justified, the benefits that they yield must outweigh the radiation risks to which they give rise.” The IAEA review suggests that the CNSC should “establish a procedure to ensure the systematic implementation of justification in the authorization of all practices involving radiation sources.”

Comment: Real situations arise where there is a trade-off between the nuclear industry’s desire to expand and the public’s right to be protected from radioactive pollutants, which are routinely released from nuclear facilities. By not explicitly addressing “justification”, Canada’s nuclear safety framework allows industry needs to prevail and man-made radiation exposures to increase without any assessment of whether or not there are benefits to society at large that justify the increased exposures. This deficiency is a problem given the recent exemption from impact assessment of small nuclear reactors and Canada’s intention to invest heavily in this new technology.

5.  The CNSC should implement a systematic gap analysis between IAEA requirements and its regulatory framework, and update the regulatory framework as necessary.

The IAEA requires that “regulations and guides shall be reviewed and revised as necessary to keep them up to date, with due consideration of relevant international safety standards” The IRRS team found that CNSC regulations “do not comprehensively cover all IAEA Fundamental Safety Requirements.” The CNSC “has no systematic approach to conduct a gap analysis between the new IAEA requirements and its regulatory framework.”  The IRRS team observed that Canada’s style of legislative practice “may create difficulties to find exact wording when searching where and by what provision individual requirements of the IAEA Safety Standards are addressed.”  It observed that the CNSC “uses a predominantly non-prescriptive approach in the application of its regulatory framework.”

Comment:  Many fundamental IAEA safety standards are not addressed by regulations in Canada and there is no system in place to identify the gaps. IAEA standards that are addressed tend to be addressed in a “non-prescriptive” way. For example, there is no mention of the standards and regulations in actual nuclear facility licenses so essentially there is no legal force behind them. In practical terms, Canada’s regulator relies on its licensees to “self-regulate”; this can lead to problems.

6. The CNSC should establish or approve dose constraints for all Class I type facilities, should consistently implement the concept of dose constraints for all facilities, and should standardise regulatory practice for derived release limits.

The IRRS team found that “dose constraints are not explicitly established for all Class I facilities,” that “there are different approaches used to the regulation of the control and authorization of releases for different types of facilities,” and that “inconsistencies are evident” in the derivation of derived released limits.

Comment: According to the review team there is much inconsistency in Canada’s approach to establishing limits for radioactive pollutants from individual facilities. This puts Canadians at risk. In our experience, CNSC allows licensees to create a separate release limit for each and every one of hundreds of radionuclides it releases, each one based on releasing up to the public dose limit for that radionuclide. This problem is compounded by the fact that members of the public can be exposed to releases from more than one facility. For example, people in the Ottawa Valley are subject to radioactive releases from the defunct NPD reactor at Rolphton, from the Chalk River Laboratories, and from SRB Technologies in Pembroke which releases tritium to the air, groundwater, and the sewer system. Each one of these facilities sets its own release limits that allow it to release up to the public dose limit for each and every radionuclide it releases. This deficiency is a problem given the recent exemption from impact assessment of small nuclear reactors and Canada’s intention to invest heavily in this new technology.

7.  The CNSC should ensure that radiation protection requirements are consistent with the IAEA General Safety Requirements, Part 3; specifically, with respect to optimization of radiation protection through dose constraints, dose limits and retention of dose records by licensees.

The IRRS team noted that the CNSC is updating its Radiation Protection Regulations.  However, it found that this update “does not foresee a reduction in the dose limit to the pregnant nuclear energy worker from 4 mSv to 1 mSv… nor the establishment of dose limits for apprentices or students of 16 to 18 years of age.”  Further, it found that CNSC regulations do not meet the IAEA requirement that “Records of occupational exposure for each worker shall be maintained during and after the worker’s working life, at least until the former worker attains or would have attained the age of 75 years, and for not less than 30 years after cessation of the work.”

Comment: Canada does not adequately protect pregnant nuclear energy workers, allowing a four times higher dose to pregnant nuclear energy workers than IAEA recommends. Canada does not adequately protect student workers from 16 – 18 years of age. Inadequate record retention makes health studies difficult and could interfere with compensation claims in the event of adverse health outcomes potentially caused by radiation exposures. This deficiency is a problem given the recent exemption from impact assessment of small nuclear reactors and Canada’s intention to invest heavily in this new technology.

8. The CNSC should align its transportation regulatory documents with IAEA requirements, including its guidance for package design certification, and guidance regarding management system for transport.

The IAEA Regulations SSR-6 (Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Materials, 2018 Edition)require that “a management system based on international, national or other standards acceptable to the competent authority shall be established and implemented for all the activities associated to the transport of radioactive material.”  The CNSC “has not explicitly established or adopted guidance regarding management system for transport.”

Comment: Canada’s inadequate management system for transport of radioactive materials puts Canadians at risk. We have no guarantees that packaging is adequate, and no notification to municipalities and emergency personnel when shipments are passing through their area. Three fiery crashes on Canadian highways in recent years amplify our concerns about potential catastrophic consequences of inadequately regulated transport of radioactive materials.

Here are screenshots of Appendix IV from the final report. The IRRS team had suggestions or recommendations in 20 out of the 26 areas they looked at during the review.