Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, members of the committee, for this opportunity to meet with you today.
The recent events surrounding the nuclear facility at Chalk River and their impact on the supply of medical isotopes has raised a lot of questions among Canadians.
Canadians want to know—quite rightly—how such a situation could have developed. And they want to know what role the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission played in these events.
This morning I'd like to answer those questions, and I hope the information I supply will be helpful to this committee as it carries on its work.
First, why didn't the CNSC just go ahead and allow the NRU to operate without the emergency power system connected, given that there was a medical crisis, and why did the CNSC close it down?
The role of the CNSC is to ensure the safety of Canadians by regulating Canada's nuclear facilities. That's our job, that's our responsibility, and that's what the law prescribes. Some have suggested that the chance of a nuclear accident was low and the reactor was safe enough. With respect, safe enough is simply not good enough. Safety at a nuclear facility needs to meet the same high standards we expect from a space shuttle or a jumbo jet. The regulations the commission enforces and the standards it upholds are about far more than pushing paper; they are really about protecting lives. That's why when it comes to nuclear facilities, ignoring safety requirements is simply not an option--not now, not ever.
Some will say that the operation of a reactor always carries some risk with it, and that's true. But there are carefully established international standards as to what constitutes an acceptable risk. In the case of a nuclear fuel failure, the international standard for acceptable risk is one in a million. The chance of such an event happening at Chalk River without either of those pumps connected to the emergency power supply was one in a thousand. That is a thousand times greater than the international standard. Remember that NRU, as originally designed and constructed over 50 years ago, would not be licensable today by any nuclear regulator in the world.
There seems to be an impression left that CNSC ordered the NRU shut down. In fact, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited shut it down on November 19, 2007, for routine maintenance. It was AECL that extended that shutdown, because, as its senior vice-president told a CNSC public meeting on December 6, 2007:
the only safe and prudent action available to me, I believe, in this situation was to shut the--keep the reactor shut down and perform those upgrades.
The commission's responsibility was to oversee that those upgrades were completed by AECL. Prior to the passage of Bill C-38, those upgrades were not in place.
The second question was why the CNSC didn't take into account the effect of a shutdown on the production of medical isotopes. This is an important question that goes directly to the mandate of the CNSC.
As I mentioned, our primary responsibility in the case of this facility is to protect Canadians by ensuring that the nuclear facility is operating safely. Under the law, the commission did not have the authority to take the issue of isotopes into consideration when making its decision up to December 10. Indeed, in its directive of December 10, 2007, the government implicitly recognized this limitation on the commission's mandate by seeking to expand its authority to include consideration of the availability of isotopes. Such an expansion would not have been necessary if the commission already had that responsibility. The fact is it did not.
That said, the CNSC has always been very sensitive to the importance of these isotopes. The medical community relied on them and patients needed them; that's why the commission took every action available to it under the law to alleviate the situation. As the body responsible for licensing hospitals and clinics that use medical isotopes, the commission was able to amend licences on request in less than 24 hours to permit the use of alternative isotopes and to increase their inventory. That was within our mandate.
AECL itself recognized these efforts in a letter to the commission dated December 7, 2007, where it said:
We believe that the health care community and the public at large have been reassured by the CNSC's demonstrated sensitivity to the importance of the beneficial use of radioisotopes....
To further alleviate the isotope situation, the commission also agreed to fast-track a complete application from AECL to get the reactor up and running, with a commitment to meet within 24 hours rather than the usual 60 days. In addition, the commission advised AECL that commission staff stood ready on a 24/7 basis to do everything in their power to help.
The third question is, why has the CNSC made such a big deal about its independence?
Well, Mr. Chair, independence in regulating nuclear facilities matters. It matters because nuclear reactors are in communities where Canadians live.
People in Chalk River, in Clarington, and in Bécancour all depend on the CNSC to ensure their families are safe. They need to know that the commission will make its decisions based on what's right. Indeed, Parliament delegates decision-making powers to these independent bodies like the CNSC precisely to preserve public confidence in the fairness of the process and the safety of the facilities. Under the law, that's how it's supposed to work. The Nuclear Safety and Control Act establishes the CNSC as a quasi-judicial body, as a court of record, and like a court, to be free of interference.
The government itself recognized the importance of such independence in its Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers, 2006, which states:
The nature of the relationship between a Minister and an administrative tribunal with independent decision-making or quasi-judicial functions is a particularly sensitive issue. Ministers must not intervene in specific decisions of those bodies.
So the importance of independence is not something I've come to recently, as a matter of convenience.
That is why, before every hearing—and I have presided over hundreds as President of the CNSC—I read out a statement explaining the independence of the Commission.
So I haven't come to this recently. It's not a matter of convenience; it's a principle that I've insisted on.
Question 4, and relatedly, how did the CNSC react to Parliament's decision to legislate the reopening of the NRU reactor?
Well, Mr. Chair, Parliament is supreme, period. Neither I nor any Canadian would ever question the right of Parliament to act as it did.
Parliament was faced with two competing interests: nuclear safety, on the one hand, and the need for medical isotopes, on the other—not an easy decision, and one appropriately made by the elected representatives of Canadians.
Since the passage of that legislation, and as long as I was president, the CNSC has done everything it can to ensure it is in compliance with that bill. I also launched a lessons learned study led by international experts, a study that the commission had hoped would feed into a wider government review.
Mr. Chair, the situation that developed at Chalk River was one that no one sought and few foresaw. Different actors had different roles to play and different responsibilities to fulfill. I believe that at all times the CNSC acted as mandated by Parliament, as the body charged with ensuring nuclear safety.
Beyond that, Mr. Chair, I would hope that we would focus on learning the lessons of Chalk River so that this situation would never arise again. Canadians shouldn't have to choose between nuclear safety and medical isotopes; they should be assured of both.
To do that, we need to be sure that we have appropriate systems in place and that the roles and accountabilities are clearly defined. Canadians expect no more and they deserve no less.
With that, I thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I am now available to answer questions.