I visited both the Ukraine and Japan last year. I saw two countries that have been forever changed by technological hubris.In the Ukraine I met people still coping with Chernobyl’s fallout twenty five years later. In Japan, I made friends with people who could detect Fukushima’s fallout in their backyards in Tokyo – 300 km from the nuclear station.
Meanwhile, back in Canada our nuclear industry and safety regulator were assuring Canadians such a horrible society-changing accident wouldn’t happen here. We were told Canadian reactor technology was ‘safer’ while an earthquake or tsunami on the Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence was unimaginable.
These nationalistic assurances that nuclear power is somehow safer in Canada appealed to our pride, a human failing. This pride in the complexity of their reactor technology often makes nuclear advocates blind to their personal role causing nuclear accidents.
This was made clear to me by a conversation I had with the former director of the Chernobyl nuclear station. He explained the Chernobyl accident in very simple and universal human terms. He told me: “You take a complex technology like a nuclear reactor, you add humans operators along with an unplanned for event and you end up in a situation where you can’t cope.”
Despite being a big believer in technology, this engineer humbly admitted the obvious: humans cause nuclear accidents.
This conclusion is echoed in a Greenpeace commissioned report Lessons from Fukushima. Greenpeace commissioned three independent experts (a nuclear physicist, a correspondent for a health publication and a nuclear engineer), to documents how the government, regulators and the nuclear industry enabled the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and then failed to protect the people from its impacts.
In Japan, the nuclear industry was allowed to wield political influence over the country’s safety regulator. This created a situation where nuclear risks were systematically ignored or dismissed. This same nuclear industry influence over safety regulation arguably exists in Canada.
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 was allegedly fired for her handling of the so-called radio-isotope crisis, which lead to a global shortage of medical isotopes. (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s (AECL) inability to build a new reactor new radioisotope producing reactor was arguably the cause for this crisis, but I digress.)
Keen, however, has said the radio-isotope crisis was an “excuse” to fire her. According to Keen, the Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin – notorious for its business connections to the Gaddafi regime -– was the principal driver behind her dismissal.
SNC-Lavalin wanted to make billions from building a 1960-era CANDU-6 reactor in Ontario. This depended on Keen ignoring modern nuclear safety standards. Keen refused to do so this and arguably cost SNC-Lavalin billions.
Keen should be commended for doing so. The pre-September 11th and pre-Chernobyl CANDU-6 reactor design exhibits a number of design vulnerabilities that are not tolerated by most other international nuclear regulators.
Keen’s support for nuclear safety, however, was an obstacle to SNC-Lavalin’s profits. SNC-Lavalin fought to defend its profit margins and erode nuclear safety. According to Keen, SNC-Lavalin worked with lobby firm Hill & Knowlton to pressure the Harper government replace Keen.
Harper sided with SNC-Lavalin and fired Keen. This sent a clear signal to Canada’s nuclear industry: the government supports nuclear profits over nuclear safety. A similar set of circumstances set the stage for Fukushima in Japan.
The Harper government installed a new president at the CNSC. Media reports since Harper’s firing of Keen have raised questions regarding the impartiality of the CNSC.
Things became even more profitable for SNC-Lavalin in 2011. The Harper government gave SNC-Lavalin several million dollars for it to “buy” AECL and the right to sell and market CANDU reactors.
Under its new president, the CNSC is also now in the process of approving the CANDU-6 reactor that didn’t meet modern safety standards under Keen’s watch. It seems safety standards have softened under the new CNSC president. Worse still, SNC-Lavalin and its friends are now pushing for Ontario's McGuinty government to build the outdated CANDU-6 at the Darlington nuclear station instead of investing in safe green energy.
Canadians need to learn the lessons of Fukushima.
While we’re told nuclear accidents are low probability events, reactor meltdowns are happening somewhere in the world once every ten years.
As the Lessons from Fukushima report describes, the key cause of such accidents is the political influence of the nuclear industry over regulators and the resulting tendency to ignore or dismiss accident risks.
This should be a warning for Canada, where our government has prioritized the profits of nuclear engineering firm SNC-Lavalin over nuclear safety.