Mr. Speaker, I rise to address the House on Bill C-249. I thank my colleague, the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, for bringing this important matter before the House.
The hon. member has a long and distinguished history of service to Canadians. I commend him on his commitment to issues of public safety and well-being. This member is well known across the country for the good work he has done. He is especially well known in my part of the country.
This proposed legislation is another example of my colleague's concern for Canadians and it deserves the careful attention of this House. As I understand it, Bill C-249 would achieve three objectives. First, it would increase the maximum level of a nuclear operator's liability for third party damage in the event of a nuclear accident. The hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce is proposing that nuclear operators be required to carry $500 million worth of liability insurance compared to the current requirement of $75 million.
By extension, Bill C-249 would increase the threshold at which the Nuclear Damage Claims Commission would be established and claims would be moved from the court system to the commission.
Finally, the bill would require the minister to make liability payments once an order is issued by the commission. This addresses what some have criticized as unwarranted discretion on the part of the minister.
I want to make it very clear that the government supports in principle the objective of increasing operator liability under the Nuclear Liability Act. We support a strengthened commitment to compensate victims of nuclear accidents. At the same time, we recognize that a number of other important changes need to be made to the act. I would like to take a few moments to explain why.
The Nuclear Liability Act, as the hon. member said, was proclaimed in 1976. It establishes a comprehensive scheme for
compensating victims of injury and damage arising from nuclear accidents. Twenty years after its proclamation, the act continues to uphold the principles that are important to a nuclear liability regime.
It is important to note that in those 20 years the Nuclear Liability Act has not changed substantially. A full six years before it was proclaimed, the act was actually passed by Parliament in 1970. It is a quarter of a century old and in that time the nuclear industry has evolved dramatically. While there is clearly a need to increase liability levels in the act, this is only one of several modernizations that need to be made for the benefit of potential victims of a nuclear accident.
In other words, the time has come for a comprehensive review of this act. Recent litigation that challenged the constitutionality of the act also highlighted the need for a comprehensive review. Although the Ontario Court, General Division, ruled in 1994 that the act is valid federal legislation, in 1996 an appeal of that decision was discontinued.
We need to update and modernize the act to more fully meet our present domestic needs and also to reflect changes in the area of international nuclear liability. In addition to revising the compensation regime, we need to correct several technical problems that have been identified within the act.
I am pleased to inform the House that such a comprehensive review is currently under way. A federal interdepartmental review committee has already developed a number of proposals to amend the act, and these proposals have been presented to key stakeholders, including operators of nuclear facilities, representatives of provincial ministries with responsibility for energy and emergency planning, and the Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada. Based on the feedback received during these preliminary discussions and on subsequent consultations, the review committee will recommend how to proceed.
Hon. members should know that the stakeholders involved in these discussions have expressed strong support for a comprehensive review of the Nuclear Liability Act, one that will encompass all of the issues that need to be addressed. The outcome will be a package of amendments that will update, modernize and clarify the entire act.
I want to assure the House that the improvements to the compensation regime as proposed in Bill C-249 are a key element of the review. This is the most important objective of the revision process. I agree with the hon. member that we need to review the current liability limit of $75 million. We must arrive at a liability level that reflects current realities. I think the limits should be raised, but I do not know whether that amount should be $500 million or some other amount. We should approach the matter in a thoughtful way, assessing what funds might be available from whom, and in what form.
The interdepartmental review committee is currently exploring options for securing higher levels of insurance from private insurers. This would increase funding for victims. The review committee is prepared to consider other forms of security, such as self-insurance, pooling arrangements and government compensation. If we examine all these sources, we may well come up with a $500 million fund. However, I am told that this is not an easy matter and certainly it is not clear that the private insurers can come up with these funds.
Another issue we need to consider is the impact Bill C-249 will have on the federal government's liability under the reinsurance agreement that was signed with the Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada in 1976. Reinsurance enables insurance companies to undertake business that their limited capacity would not normally allow them to touch.
This arrangement between the federal government and the NIAC provides for both additional insurance capacity and additional types of risk. Basically it ensures that the federal government will provide coverage for all the risks contemplated in the Nuclear Liability Act that are not covered by the operator's insurance up to that limit of $75 million.
For example, some small reactors may be required by the Atomic Energy Control Board to carry only $500,000 in liability insurance. In that case, the remaining $74.5 million is guaranteed by the federal government through the reinsurance agreement. Increasing the maximum liability to $500 million would mean that the federal government could become liable for as much as $499.5 million under this scenario. Any amendment to the liability limit clearly should be accompanied by changes to the reinsurance agreement.
The interdepartmental review committee is addressing another issue, the limitation periods for claims arising from nuclear accidents. Under the current act, claims must be brought within 10 years of the accident. However, some arguments favour extending the limitation period for claims related to personal injury or death.
Other arguments favour relying more heavily on administrative systems, rather than the courts to deal with compensation. This could be achieved by amending the act to explicitly lower the threshold at which the Nuclear Damage Claims Commission is established. The result would be a more effective compensation scheme that minimizes hardships for victims of nuclear accidents.
A number of other provisions of the Nuclear Liability Act need to be clarified or updated. For example, the definition of compensable nuclear damages should be reviewed. The current definition does not make explicit reference to environmental damage, preventive measures or economic losses. This is not consistent with evolving international trends, nor with the growing public concern for the environment or with principles of fairness. The review will
address the need to revise the definition of nuclear damage to reflect these matters.
As well, the rules and regulations governing the Nuclear Damage Claims Commission need to be elaborated. The criteria for the commission's membership could be broadened to permit people with a range of experience to participate.
Another concern is that under the current act, the rules governing the commission's procedures can only be developed after the commission is established. It would seem to make sense to have this operating framework in place before an accident occurs, rather than after an accident when the development process may be rushed and may not be well thought out.
As mentioned earlier, there are also a number of technical problems with the act. For example, the act lacks a preamble that would explain its purpose and objectives and describe a constitutional basis for the legislation. It has also been suggested that compensation amounts be included in regulations rather than in the act itself, since it is easier to amend regulations to take account of inflation or increased insurance capacity than it is to amend the act.
There is also a perceived need to clarify and strengthen the relationship between the federal government and the Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada.
In conclusion, I can offer my qualified support for Bill C-249. I acknowledge and agree with the objective of increasing liability limits under the Nuclear Liability Act. However, we need to establish a solid rationale for a new liability limit. As well, we need to identify where these funds come from and how this proposed change will affect the federal government's liability.