Satellite image showing damage at Japan's Fukushima 1 Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. 16/03/2011 Source: DigitalGlobe

Nuclear safety regulators from around the world are in Canada’s capital this week to discuss what lessons they should learn from the Fukushima disaster. It’s a bad choice of venue.

Canada’s approach to nuclear safety isn’t one to emulate. In Canada, the nuclear regulator is a promotional agency first and a safety watchdog second.  

After investigating the disaster, the Japanese government's Independent Investigation Commission conclude Fukushima was not the result of a freak act of nature and was instead due to collusion between the government, the regulator and plant operator TEPCO.

This collusion was driven by the Japanese government’s desire to promote its nuclear industry. There was an implicit understanding between the Japanese government, reactor operators and the national reactor safety watchdog that nuclear profits go before nuclear safety.

In this topsy-turvy world, greed is a virtue and respect for human security a vice and as a Canadian, I’ve seen this same reversal of priorities at play here in Canada’s nuclear industry.

In 2008, Canada’s federal government fired Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) president Linda Keen. Behind her firing was Keen’s imposition of more modern international reactor safety standards on Canada’s nuclear industry. 

Keen’s enforcement of nuclear safety standards probably cost the powerful Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin billions in profit. The company didn’t take this loss lying down.

SNC-Lavalin wanted to boost its profits building new reactors in Ontario by cutting back on safety systems. It hoped to build a reactor on the cheap with a pre-Chernobyl, pre-September 11 Canadian reactor design. Because of Keen saying safety came first, SNC-Lavalin lost the contract.

More than a little enraged, SNC-Lavalin used its backroom influence over Canada’s Conservative government to get Keen fired and replaced with a more industry-friendly regulator. We quickly saw the impact on Canada’s nuclear regulator.

The Canadian commission’s new president was quick to establish his mandate and put industry profits ahead of safeguarding Canadians. He even provided promotional quotes for Canadian reactors in industry press releases.

And remember that outdated reactor design that couldn’t pass modern, post September 11 safety standards under Linda Keen? Under Canada’s new industry-friendly nuclear safety watchdog, it curiously now seems to meet Canadian safety standards.

Like Japan, Canada’s nuclear industry has been allowed to pull the strings of its own regulator.

No one dared mention this today at the conference, probably because other safety regulators at the conference are living under similar conditions in their own countries.  

Last week, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Gregory Jaczko said that the existing fleet of reactors should be shut down because of the accident risks.

Jaczko has full liberty of expression on reactor risk since he was forced to resign as chairman of the NRC last year. Some say Jaczko was forced to resign because he was pushing US reactor operators to carry out expensive reactor upgrades in light of Fukushima. Sound familiar?

The fate of Canada’s Keen and America’s Jaczko point to a pattern: when nuclear regulators prioritise protecting people above the industry they are quickly shown the door. 

Keen and Jaczko lost their jobs because their definition of “safety” was different than that of their national governments. For them, safety meant safeguarding health, property and livelihood.

But for their governments and most of the regulators gathered in Ottawa this week “nuclear safety” means something entirely different: protecting the profits of nuclear companies. 

I’m on the side of Keen and Jaczko.

(Photo: Satellite image showing damage at Fukushima 1 Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant after an earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. Source: DigitalGlobe)