Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to this important government bill, specifically, Bill C-5, An Act respecting civil liability and compensation for damage in case of a nuclear incident.
We recall that this bill was introduced by the Minister of Natural Resources during the previous session of Parliament and had to be introduced in this House again after prorogation. It was quickly reinstated and has now been assigned the number 5, which says a lot about this government's priorities.
I would first like to give an outline of the bill and briefly put it into context. Like many environmental stakeholders, the Bloc Québécois has noted a renewed interest in nuclear energy, across Canada and around the world. In Canada, we have been hearing a lot about it since the current Conservative government was elected. A number of statements by the Minister of Natural Resources, who is one of its main proponents, clearly illustrate his government's renewed interest in the nuclear sector—at least, that was the case until very recently.
According to the newspapers, it will now be harder for the Minister of Natural Resources to promote nuclear energy. Le Droit reports that ministers will now have to tread lightly when promoting nuclear energy because Quebeckers and Canadians are particularly concerned about this controversial subject. It may therefore not be in the government's interest to hold a public debate on the issue just now.
The minister seems to have forgotten that nuclear energy is not, as he claims, clean energy. Radioactive waste is still a big, expensive problem. After 40 years, Canada still does not have a solution. That is why, when it comes to nuclear energy, the Bloc Québécois is calling for strict, effective control at every stage of the process, from extraction and transportation to the generation of heat and electricity.
For these reasons, the Bloc Québécois supports the principle underlying this bill concerning operator liability in the event of a nuclear incident. Nevertheless, it is deplorable that the Conservative government has failed to respond to recent reports, such as the one last June about burial of nuclear waste, by holding Canada-wide consultations on nuclear power.
The government has decided to promote nuclear energy without holding a debate even though there is no consensus at all on the issue. In fact, environmental groups are very critical of nuclear energy. The Bloc Québécois refuses to make compromises when it comes to the safety of Quebeckers. We must never forget what happened at Chernobyl in Ukraine and at Three Mile Island in the United States, where the fallout from nuclear incidents was extremely serious. We must do everything in our power to prevent such incidents.
I would like to reiterate the goals of Bill C-5, which, and I quote, “establishes a liability regime applicable in the event of a nuclear incident that makes operators of nuclear installations absolutely and exclusively liable for damages up to a maximum of $650 million.”
Bill C-5 also seeks to amend and update the Nuclear Liability Act. It also replaces the power to create a nuclear damage claims commission with the power to create a nuclear claims tribunal.
In Canada, the Nuclear Liability Act, which came into force in 1976, assigns liability for nuclear damage to the operators of nuclear installations. The maximum coverage under the law is $75 million. Part II of the act enables the governor in council to create a Nuclear Damage Claims Commission, which examines the claims for compensation in cases where the federal government is of the opinion that the cost of damages caused by a nuclear incident could be more than $75 million.
Since the operator's liability is limited to the amount of its insurance, $75 million, it is presumably the federal government that would have to make up the difference.
The act is administered by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which designates the nuclear installations subject to the act, determines who is the operator by issuing permits in accordance with the provisions of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, and establishes the amount of the basic insurance with the approval of the federal Treasury Board.
The framework for nuclear power for civilian use is particularly developed in Europe. European states that were promoting the use of stand-alone nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity wanted to ensure adequate financial compensation would be available for victims in the event of an accident.
They were the ones who initiated the first instrument to be put in place, the Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy of July 29, 1960, known as the Paris Convention. Developed under the auspices of the OECD and covering European countries, it incorporated a number of principles governing nuclear liability law.
In Canada, nuclear liability is based on the same principles: operators are absolutely liable for damage suffered by a third party; operators are exclusively liable for damage suffered by a third party; operators' liability is limited in terms of time and amounts claimed; and operators are required to hold insurance or some other financial security to cover their liability.
However, although limitation of liability is a known principle, European countries and Canada interpret it differently. There are gaps. One of these gaps has to do with the amount of liability.
In chapter 8 of her 2005 annual report, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development dealt specifically with insurance coverage for operators of nuclear facilities, in response to two petitions. The commissioner indicated that the accident insurance requirements for nuclear facilities did not comply with international standards. The $75 million of coverage required by the Nuclear Liability Act is woefully inadequate by international standards.
Senior officials with Natural Resources Canada said that, with inflation, $250 million of coverage in current dollars would be equivalent to the amount required in the act when it was passed and that to meet international standards, roughly $650 million Canadian would be required. This opinion was shared by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in her own report in 2005.
Under the Paris convention, which most European governments signed, the recommended limit is $600 million. Why Canada is lagging so far behind, when the parliamentary committee that examined the bill before it was passed in 1976 recommended that it be reviewed every five years? Twenty-five years later, it still has not been updated.
The then Minister of Natural Resources stated in March 2003 that “it is time to bring forward revisions to the Nuclear Liability Act to update it and bring it up to international standards”.
Clearly, the current Nuclear Liability Act, with its limit of $75 million, is even more inadequate in 2007, and it is time the act was updated.
Now I want to talk about the review of the Nuclear Responsibility Act. This is the second deficiency. In an evolving issue such as this it is imperative to adjust the legislative and regulatory framework regularly in order for new realities to be taken into account. Review of the maximum award for which nuclear plant operators are liable has been quite deficient so far.
In 2003, officials from Natural Resources traced the history of the Nuclear Responsibility Act and the review process that should have increased the liability threshold. The act was passed in 1970, but not enacted until 1976, after an agreement was reached with a group that is now known as the Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada, or NIAC, on the matter of liability. In 1982, six years after the legislation was enacted, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission asked an interdepartmental working group to review the act. In 1984, the working group presented a discussion paper in order to get public input. It was not until 1990, however, that the recommendations were forwarded to the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources. We also had to wait until 1995 for a new interdepartmental review committee to resume the modernization work. This work was not done until February 2001. The minister finally received the recommendations, but never carried them out. It is only now in 2007, 31 years after the legislation was put into force, that a bill is finally being introduced to modernize legislation that was supposed to be reviewed every five years. Thirty-one years in such a critical area clearly illustrates a significant deficiency.
Although Bill C-5 is rather voluminous in clauses and pages, it can be summed up in three major points: first, the definition of an operator's responsibility—by operator we mean the operator of a nuclear power plant or installation—the terms and financial limit of the liability and, lastly, the establishment of a nuclear claims tribunal, which would adjudicate claims for damage arising from any nuclear accident and determine who is liable for said accident.
Bill C-5 establishes the specific responsibilities of operators of nuclear installations and clearly indicates the damages that can be compensated and those that cannot. Of the most important clauses, clause 9 specifies that the operator's liability is absolute, and more importantly that it is automatic in the event of radiation emissions, as proof of fault is not required. Clearly, that means that in the event of an incident, no matter the cause—except for war, civil war or insurrection—the operator of the installation is liable and must compensate the persons harmed. Clauses 13 to 20 list all compensable damages and expenses, including bodily injury and property damage, economic loss, costs related to the loss of use of property and costs incurred for preventive measures ordered by an authority acting under federal or provincial legislation relating to environmental protection.
The second aspect deals with the financial aspects of liability. The main clause, clause 21, states that the liability of an operator under this act for damage resulting from a nuclear incident is limited to $650 million. The Governor in Council may, by regulation, amend subclause (1) to increase the amount. Subclause (1) does not relieve an operator from payment of the costs of administering claims, court costs or interest on compensation.
Thus, liability is being gradually increased from $75 million to $650 million over a period of four years. This considerable jump must not obscure the fact that such an adjustment is necessary at this time, precisely because of the federal government's failure to regularly adjust the amount.
If the federal government had fulfilled its responsibilities in this matter for the past 31 years, the amount of insurance would have been raised gradually to allow for suitable compensation, instead of increasing it so drastically, because it has become apparent that the amount is ridiculously low.
We can consider ourselves lucky that there were no major incidents here in Canada in the last 30 years, because citizens and communities would not have received enough compensation.
In clause 23, the bill specifies that insurance must be maintained separately for each nuclear facility, which only makes sense, since each facility could, on its own, be the source of an incident.
Lastly, the bill also establishes a special tribunal to hear claims, when the Governor in Council believes that it is in the best interest of the public.
The Governor in Council may declare that the claims in respect of a nuclear incident are to be dealt with by a tribunal, if the Governor in Council believes that it is in the public interest to do so, having regard to the extent and the estimated cost of the damage, and the advantages of having the claims dealt with by an administrative tribunal.
Subsequent clauses define the powers of the nuclear claims tribunal, granting it broad powers intended to accelerate and simplify the claims process, whenever circumstances and considerations of fairness permit.
Finally, in an effort to process claims expeditiously, the tribunal may establish classes of claims that may be determined by a claims officer without an oral hearing and designate as a claims officer anyone it considers qualified.
In closing, I would like to point out that the Minister of Natural Resources seems to have little credibility when it comes to nuclear energy. Indeed, the minister's enthusiasm for this energy resource, even though no serious debate has been held—a debate we in the Bloc believe is necessary—leaves us fairly speechless.
In his press releases and speeches, the minister alleges that nuclear energy is clean because it emits virtually no greenhouse gas. While it is true that nuclear energy produces only a small quantity of greenhouse gas, it does produce radioactive waste that is difficult and expensive to manage. To ignore this is to neglect an important consideration and mislead Canadians, especially when the Minister of Natural Resources is in favour of using nuclear energy to boost production of oil from the tar sands.
Nuclear energy may produce little greenhouse gas, but oil produces a great deal. The equation is simple. The benefits of using nuclear energy—reduced greenhouse gas emissions—will be offset by increased oil production.
The Minister of Natural Resources should show some restraint when it comes to this energy source, because it is far from being unanimously accepted by Canadians, and especially Quebeckers, and it carries very real risks.
Without being alarmist, we have to realize that nuclear energy should not be this minister's first choice. He should invest more in developing clean energy such as wind, solar and geothermal power.
The Bloc Québécois therefore supports Bill C-5 in principle, but will examine the bill carefully in committee to make sure that it has no loopholes that will allow operators to shirk their responsibilities, that taxpayers will not unduly share the risk and the cost of compensation and, finally, that the amount of insurance coverage is reviewed regularly, in compliance with international standards, and represents the real cost of the damage that may result from a nuclear accident.