Who will fix Canada’s nuclear governance gaps?: citizens’ groups (Hill Times)

The following letter to the editor was published in the Hill Times, March 3, 2021


Our respective public interest citizens’ groups from Manitoba and Ontario along with colleagues in Quebec submitted Petition 427 to the federal auditor general in June 2019 to flag serious problems in Canada’s nuclear governance regime and recommend solutions. The concerns raised in our petition are shared by many other groups from across Canada.

Our research into nuclear governance was sparked by a desire to understand why and how substandard radioactive waste projects have come to be planned for sites on the Winnipeg and Ottawa Rivers. OECD documents allowed for comparisons between Canada and other OECD countries on many aspects of nuclear governance.

Canada came up short on many metrics. For example, Canada has:

  • Weak and outdated primary legislation with purposes that do not explicitly aim to protect the public from the detrimental effects of ionizing radiation;
  • No legislation dealing with the vast majority (by volume) of nuclear reactor wastes in Canada;
  • Delegated almost all nuclear oversight to one agency, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, resulting in a lack of checks and balances found in other OECD countries;
  • A serious and ongoing perception of regulatory capture of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, reported by the Expert Panel on environmental assessment reform. The CNSC promotes the projects it is tasked with regulating;
  • A serious conflict of interest in the reporting relationship of CNSC to the minister of natural resources, who has a mandate to promote nuclear energy under the Nuclear Energy Act;
  • Delegated to a nuclear industry group, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), the job of developing strategies for radioactive waste, counter to guidance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA);
  • A serious policy vacuum on radioactive waste and nuclear reactor decommissioning, currently being addressed but with problems that include leadership by the minister of natural resources who has a conflict of interest as noted above, and delegation to the NWMO, counter to IAEA guidance.

Why does it matter that Canada has one of the least robust systems of nuclear governance in the world? The nuclear business comes with risks of catastrophic accidents and produces dangerous and potentially deadly wastes. There is no safe level of exposure to the radioactive substances produced in nuclear reactors. These materials remain hazardous for many millennia. Robust nuclear governance is needed to protect humans, other life forms, and the environment from these risks.

We believe that Canada’s weak nuclear governance regime is a root cause of the substandard proposals to build a giant radioactive waste mound upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau and to entomb highly radioactive nuclear reactors in concrete beside the Ottawa and Winnipeg Rivers.

In our view, Canada’s weak nuclear governance regime also makes federal funding for new nuclear reactors risky and liable to compound serious existing nuclear waste problems and liabilities in this country.

Remedies are offered for many of these problems in Petition 427, but to our knowledge, no one in government is considering them. A letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau 11 months ago, on April 3, 2020, requesting urgent attention to these matters and others raised by a recent IAEA peer review of Canada’s nuclear safety framework has gone unanswered. It appears that no one is minding the shop.

It’s a vexing conundrum: in a country with a weak nuclear governance regime consisting of a “one-stop shop,” “captured regulator” that reports to a minister responsible for promoting nuclear energy, who will take responsibility for fixing Canada’s nuclear governance gaps?

Anne Lindsey, OM, MA
Winnipeg, Man., Concerned Citizens of Manitoba

Lynn Jones, MHSc
Ottawa, Ont., Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area