Groups object to nuclear regulator’s plan to weaken rules for experimental nuclear reactors

Media Release

FRANCAIS

OTTAWA – Civil society groups are objecting to plans by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to weaken its nuclear security regulations. A staff presentation to the Commission today reveals that they have been reviewing the regulations since 2018, with no public consultation.

The presentation says amendments are underway to “remove prescriptive requirements” from the Nuclear Security Regulations and publish the revised regulations by late 2021 or early 2022.

A paper by Natural Resources Canada says that prescriptive regulations are more detailed and stringent, and easier to monitor and enforce.

“While the CNSC asserts its decision making is ‘free from external pressure,’ civil society groups continue to question the regulator’s independence,” said Kerrie Blaise of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. “The CNSC is supporting the nuclear industry’s requests to remove regulatory barriers for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).”

Indeed, the federal government’s recent SMR action plan confirms that one of its expected results is that “Revised Nuclear Security Regulations only cover high-level principles similar to other regulations and prescriptive requirements are removed.”

The CNSC presentation shows that Canada’s nuclear regulator intends to change its regulatory approach to accommodate new experimental reactor technologies, known as small modular reactors (SMRs). Other regulations being “enhanced” by CNSC deal with safety assessment, design and licensing of nuclear power plants.

Today’s CNSC meeting will finish with an in-camera closed session to consider a staff presentation entitled, “Regulatory project to amend the General Nuclear Safety and Control Regulations and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Import & Export Control Regulations.”

“We are disappointed that CNSC staff has forged ahead and is now proposing a looser regulatory approach without any consultation with Canadians who would be directly affected if and when one of these new experimental reactors is trucked into their community,” said Brennain Lloyd, coordinator of Northwatch, based in northeastern Ontario.

The plan to expand new nuclear technologies across Canada and into remote mining and Indigenous communities is controversial. The United Church of Canada recently joined with over 100 citizen groups, the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Anishinabek Nation, and three federal parties in opposing SMRs.

The federal government has been promoting SMRs with its action plan and funding from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)’s Strategic Innovation Fund, saying that “Canada is poised to be a leader in the safe and responsible development” of SMRs. Yet the government has exempted most SMRs from a federal environmental assessment under the new Impact Assessment Act.

Critics say that SMRs would require billions in public subsidies and fear that their designers also want more relaxed safety and security regulations. Of the more than 50 designs that exist for experimental nuclear reactors, the CNSC is reviewing a dozen under pre-licensing agreements with companies like Moltex Energy and GE-Hitachi.

“The CNSC’s SMR design reviews are taking place behind closed doors,” said Lloyd. “That allows these private sector companies to sell their unproven reactor designs to the regulatory staff without any public scrutiny.”

The CNSC staff presentation also states that CNSC is “supporting” two SMR vendors active in New Brunswick, including the study of how they might extract plutonium from highly radioactive irradiated CANDU fuel. A government report highlighted that reprocessing used CANDU fuel, which has never been done previously in Canada, raises nuclear weapons proliferation risks.

“We are outraged that New Brunswick is being used for a risky and costly experiment with dangerous radioactive materials, and that we will not have an opportunity to voice our concerns during a federal Impact Assessment,” said Dr. Susan O’Donnell, spokesperson for the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick.

The CNSC staff presentation suggests that the first SMRs are expected to be constructed soon. Global First Power applied in early 2019 for a license to prepare a site at Chalk River, Ontario (on federally owned land), and Ontario Power Generation has notified the CNSC of its intent to apply for a license to construct new reactors at the Darlington Power Plant by March 2022.

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Media contacts:
Kerrie Blaise
Northern Legal Counsel, CELA
Email: kerrie@cela.ca
Tel: 416-960-2284 ext 7224

Brennain Lloyd, Northwatch
Tel: 705-497-0373, cell 705-493-9650
brennain@northwatch.org

Eva Schacherl, CANDOR
Tel: 613-316-9450
evaschacherl@gmail.com