Greenpeace work is not always glamorous, hopping from zodiac to zodiac or scaling buildings to hang banners. One of the most tedious things my job entails is participating in regulatory board hearings. But sometimes, these hearings can turn into a circus. Then everyone wakes up, people pay attention and these board hearings become much more interesting. Last week I travelled to Trois-Rivières Quebec for hearings of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) on the licence renewal of Gentilly-2, Quebec’s only nuclear reactor. Sound boring? Well, it was supposed to be. For two days I sat in a room full of nuclear industry staff, listening to them repeat platitudes that nuclear power is cheap, clean and, of course, safe.
The safety of the ageing Gentilly-2 nuclear station was one of my top concerns for enduring these hearings. Through access-to-information (a tedious but rewarding activity) I had acquired a memo from Hydro-Quebec to CNSC staff admitting taht ‘fissures’ – small cracks - had unexpectedly been discovered on the piping carrying the coolant to the reactor core. Hydro-Quebec admitted they couldn’t predict if these fissures would grow or even break – a big safety concern.
Local media attend such hearings, though there is often not a lot of interest to report. Upon arriving I distributed a press release on Greenpeace’s concerns regarding the deteriorating safety of the reactor. A television reporter promptly asked how I could make such a claim. I handed him a copy of the Hydro-Quebec letter. He quickly taped an interview with me and left to get a statement from Hydro-Quebec.
About an hour later the journalist came back smiling. ‘Hydro-Quebec is denying that they found any fissures in the reactor and are saying the reactor is perfectly safe,’ he said. ‘Well, you read the letter right?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘I guess they’re trying to downplay the reactors safety problems,’ I said. ‘So it seems’ the reporter said and left.
I didn’t really clue in to the significance of Hydro-Quebec’s denial until the next day when an acquaintance attending the hearings woke me at 6 am to let me know Radio-Canada TV had done a 4 minute report on the Gentilly-2 hearings – most of it on Greenpeace’s safety concerns. Hydro-Quebec’s outright denial of the reactor’s safety problems, it seems, had raised the suspicion of most of the journalists at the hearings because it hit most of the TV networks. Hydro-Quebec denying publicly what they said privately to the CNSC made the hearings a big news story, in Quebec at least.
Some people who saw the TV coverage noted how adamantly Hydro-Quebec claimed that everything was fine at the reactor. They said Hydro-Quebec went so far as to accuse me of misrepresenting the truth. I was just quoting what Hydro-Quebec's own report had told Canada’s nuclear regulatory behind closed doors.
While the hearings were a little tedious, they did show me – yet again – that there’s often a big difference between what the nuclear industry says in public and what it says in back rooms.