Hearings on the future of the Darlington nuclear station begin on Monday.   The hearings will be controversial.   In a post Fukushima world, Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) proposal to spend billions to rebuild the outdated Darlington reactors is in-of-itself a risky and questionable project.   I think a bigger question will overshadow the hearings: Can Canadians even trust the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s (CNSC) oversight of reactor safety in Canada?  

Sadly, I think the answer to this question is ‘no’ based on the CNSC’s handling of the Darlington review so far.

My bet is next week’s hearings will show that the Ontario’s McGuinty government needs to step up and assume its responsibility to protect Ontarians from Darlington’s environmental and financial risks.    

The CNSC has stubbornly limited the public’s ability to understand and comment on OPG’s plan to keep the Darlington nuclear station running until 2055.  In particular, it has refused to acknowledge and address lessons from the Fukushima disaster in the environmental review to be discussed next week.

Civil society groups have tried to make constructive input to the Darlington review, but have been dismissed if such criticisms challenged the CNSC’s pre-Fukushima approach to regulating reactors.

In July of 2011, about twenty four organizations asked the CNSC broaden the scope and public participation opportunities of the Darlington review process in light of Fukushima.   The groups highlighted a number of weaknesses in the CNSC’s regulatory approach that have been exposed by the Fukushima.

With Fukushima we’re seeing a major nuclear accident about once a decade somewhere in the world.   This reality contradicts everything the CNSC has been telling Canadians about reactor risks. 

The CNSC, however, just dismissed the groups’ request.  Despite Fukushima, the CNSC seems committed to business-as-usual.

In August of 2011, Greenpeace asked the CNSC to apply some of the recommendations of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) that reviewed building new reactors at Darlington just after the Fukushima disaster started.   These JRP recommendations related to some lessons that should be learned from Fukushima, but challenged the CNSC’s traditional approach to regulation.

Specifically, the JRP said we need to examine whether current emergency plans can cope with accidental radiation releases from all of the Darlington reactors.   We currently only have emergency plans for an accident at a single reactor.

The CNSC stubbornly refused to apply the JRP recommendations.   This I find shocking: the CNSC refused to even acknowledge and apply the recommendations from a government appointed body.

Greenpeace also raised concerns and evidence again in our comments on the draft environmental assessment report.    Dismissed again.

What specifically is the CNSC trying to avoid?

Acknowledging that accidental large radiation releases are happening on a regular basis internationally would require the CNSC to consider such events in its environmental review of Darlington’s continued operation.

That would mean that public would have access to information on the full environmental, social and risks of continuing to operate Darlington.

It would also allow us to discuss whether Ontario’s emergency plans could adequately protect Canadians in the event of an accident at Darlington.   

To the average person living in Darlington’s shadow, reviewing the adequacy of nuclear emergency plans and the potential environmental effects of such an event would seem reasonable before we commit billions to rebuilding the station.

To the Canadian nuclear industry, however, such a review would is viewed as a public relations nightmare.  To them, such public scrutiny should be avoided at all costs.  Sadly the CNSC seems more than willing to help Canadian nuclear operators with their public relations.  

What might be driving all this?

In 2008, the Harper government fired Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) president Linda Keen.   This sent a signal to industry and our federal regulator that nuclear safety can be ignored or dismissed.

Keen has since said she was fired because she was tried to impose modern safety standards on Canadian nuclear operators.

Media reports since Harper’s firing of Keen have raised questions regarding the impartiality of the CNSC.

I’ve also seen this first hand in how the CNSC has handled the Darlington safety review.

Last week, the CNSC admitted that it had also dismissed a request by Emergency Management Ontario to consider major reactor accidents at Darlington to validate Ontario’s nuclear emergency plans.

The CNSC even said ‘no’ to the government of Ontario.   Now that’s stubborn.

Clearly the world has changed since Fukushima, but the CNSC hasn’t.

If Canadians can’t trust the federal safety watchdog, it’s probably time the Ontario government take responsibility for protecting Ontarians.

I think next week’s hearings will shows that it’s time for McGuinty government to stop passing off the safety of Ontarians to the Harper government.

Other countries have decided that nuclear reactors are too risky post Fukushima and are investing heavily in renewables.

The Ontario government should start protecting Ontarians by examining alternatives to Darlington. 

Believe it or not, there’s been no public review of whether we even need Darlngton.  It’s time we examine our options.