SG / CNSC: some background…

If you are new to nuclear issues in Canada (although the things I have learned in Canada may very well apply in other countries that use nuclear power), there are a few things it is helpful to know. I’ll mention one or two, & my next post will have some specifics about the steam generator issue (SG) & recent CNSC hearing (you can see a Webcast of the hearing here.)

1. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) claims it “regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, security and the environment and to respect Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”

Some of us would question that lofty claim. Many of us who've been active on nuclear issues have long found that the CNSC seems to be (to quote the words of NDP Member of Parliament Nathan Cullen, who gave a press conference on Parliament Hill on September 28th, right after another press conference on the SG issue, just before the hearing began) a “lapdog rather than a watchdog.”

CNSC frankly seems to be an agency that exists to promote & facilitate the operations of the nuclear industry. I say this after watching CNSC tribunal members & staff in action for some years now.

CNSC staff look & act very much as though they work for the nuclear industry, rather than for the Canadian public, whose tax dollars mostly pay their very generous salaries. (Complication: the nuke industry also gives the CNSC money in some kind of “cost recovery” scheme that I don’t begin to understand, so the employees, I guess, have a hard time “biting the hand that feeds them.”)

You will never be able to make sense of any nuclear goings-on in Canada without this basic understanding. The CNSC really does not work for you & me – unless you & I happen to be part & parcel of the nuclear industry.

And let’s conclude today’s civics lesson on this point by adding that there are other government agencies that are not independent of industry/corporate-driven priorities. Pesticides & Health Canada & the Pest Management Regulatory Agency spring quickly to mind. I gather Agriculture Canada has a similar dynamic.

We have lots of freedom of speech in Canada (although increasingly the media outlets are owned by a tight-fisted corporate/industry-driven agenda) – but our government is seldom really very much our friend at all. Sad, but true, I’m afraid.

2. The CNSC Tribunal (the bigshots who make the decisions & are paid very handsomely to do so) is heavily dominated by an engineering mindset. Gotta confess, I don’t really even understand what that consists of – but here are 2 things that have been said to me along the way that have helped me somewhat to understand how some engineering minds think…

First was by a fellow who was then employed in the nuclear industry (in a location where frequent heavy water spills made & presumably still make their way into the Ottawa River). In response to a news item on TV, he commented to the effect that “Gosh – we [meaning engineers? Nuke industry insiders?] always thought the ocean could hold all that stuff we dump in it.” I was taken aback. For sure, his royal “we” did not speak for me!! I have never believed that the planet’s rivers, streams, lakes & oceans were meant to be repositories for human garbage, toxins, toxic waste, mine effluent, nuclear waste, oil spills…etc. etc. The next comment that helped me out was when a young man I know who has a civil engineering degree (& another degree; not sure what the other one is; an MBA maybe??) commented to me that engineers are taught to go ahead & do things that are possible to do, without ever stopping to ask themselves what the consequences of their actions will be. In other words, there is no ethical component to their thinking. (They probably dismiss the precautionary principle as just so much frippery; for sure, they do not understand it.)

3. When the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission holds a public hearing, those who wish to “intervene” must usually register their intent to do so a full month ahead, by submitting 4 weeks ahead of time, in writing, the things they plan to discuss at the hearing. This gives CNSC staff plenty of time to prepare for the riff-raff (I’m sure that’s the way they conceive of those of us who oppose their shenanigans) & refute whatever the riff-raff plan to say. I have no idea how many of these employees there are. It appears the organization has gobs & gobs of staff. Lots of Ph.D.’s & “experts” among them. They always speak very, very authoritatively – even when what they are saying is utterly incorrect (maybe especially when what they are saying is incorrect??)

4. The nuclear business is very, very technical & complex. It is so technical & complex that unless you have about 5 Ph. D’s, odds are you will not understand a great deal of it in its full complexity. So, for example, CNSC staffer A who understands health-related matters (& those maybe not all that well, frankly) does not understand how a tritium plume moves underground through groundwater. The “expert” who supposedly understands how tritium plumes move may frankly not understand it at all, since it’s entirely possible that no human being really does understand this (& why should we? Shouldn’t we just stop causing such utterly awful things to happen in the first place???). (For sure the CNSC staff does not understand it; that’s why the migration of the tritium plume underground in Pembroke, Ontario, in the area of the SRB Technologies tritium light operation, has been very inaccurately predicted. And if you have no idea whatsoever what a tritium plume is, lucky you!! You probably don’t live near SRB in Pembroke & haven’t had your well water ruined forever by it!)

Dear me, I seem to be digressing here. My apologies.

Point simply being, CNSC staff is mostly Ph.D.-heavy, but what I would call wisdom-light. They know, as one woman I encountered in the nuclear town I used to live in once put it about some Ph.D. types, “more & more & more about less & less & less, until eventually they know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing.”

(Important point: I know lots of fine folks with Ph. D.’s who are very smart indeed. Not merely book-learning smart, but people-smart & social skills-smart. All-around lovely people - who have ethics & morals & try to exercise them on a routine basis, & who clearly understand what the term "precautionary principle" actually means. Basically it means "Gee, when there are risks of danger to human beings & the environment, put on the brakes & go real slow!")

But the folks at the CNSC seem to have their heads stuck in some kind of … tunnel? There isn’t much light in it, whatever it is they have their heads stuck in. Hmmm. Maybe it’s just that, as Upton Sinclair once so wisely put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” There is a whole very, very large nuclear industry on this planet that is staffed by people for whom this remark is presumably very apt.

So. The CNSC staff knows all kinds of arcane stuff about nuclear goings-on. They know policies & quote lots of bewildering acronyms, & can go on at great length about bamboozling things, very little of it indeed easy or even possible for ignorant peasants such as myself to grasp – but the greatly fortunate thing is that there are activists who are wildly intelligent & stubborn & feisty & passionate – & when their communities are threatened by nuclear nonsense of one kind or another (unfortunately, the nuclear nonsense is very, very widespread & nasty indeed), they learn about how all this stuff really works, & then they can take on the nuclear industry & make them look bad.

Of course, usually agencies like the CNSC just go right on ahead & allow the nuclear nastiness to continue anyway – I’ve certainly seen that happen! The citizens of the city of Pembroke, on the Ottawa River northeast of Ottawa, have been unwilling guinea pigs for a massive tritium pollution experiment for 20 years now, & the CNSC a few months ago extended the license of this nasty little business for another 5 years (the TAP – Tritium Awareness Project – Web site has plenty of information on this topic, btw).

But goodness me, do let’s get back to the steam generators, shall we?? Next post….