Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak in opposition to Bill C-5, An Act respecting civil liability and compensation for damage in case of a nuclear incident.
As the House has heard from other members of the NDP today, we are very concerned about the bill. We are on the second to last day of Parliament and the bill has been around for a while. Extensive work has been done in the committee. The NDP brought forward 35 amendments to try to make some improvements to it because we felt it was so significantly flawed. Unfortunately, we did not have the support of other parties for those amendments, so here we are.
Yes, in truth, we in the NDP are trying to stop the bill. We do not think it should go through. I am certainly going to put forward my two cents' worth today.
I am from Vancouver East, British Columbia. People in B.C. have always lived in an environment with the potential of nuclear accidents because to the south of us there are nuclear facilities. There is the Hanford facility in Washington State, which has been the site of serious accidents in the past. I know people in communities in southern British Columbia live with much concern about their future and the future of their children because of the nuclear industry and what happens when there is an accident.
Nobody wants an accident to happen and we need to have the maximum number of precautions to ensure none do. However, the bill before us deals with the question after the fact. What happens if there is an accident and what is the liability?
First, members of the NDP agree 100% that the current legislation, which goes back to the 1970s, is terribly inadequate. It set a liability limit of $75 million, which in today's terms would be nickels and dimes in liability for the nuclear industry. The new bill sets the liability limit at $650 million.
Some may look at that and say that it is a big improvement and suggest that we should go for it. However, when we scratch the surface of the bill and start to examine it in terms of international law and context, the limits contained in the bill on a nuclear operator of $650 million is at the bottom of the international average. To me that immediately raises questions. Why would we place ourselves at the bottom of an international average? Also, why is this bill being put forward at this point?
We have heard concerns from communities, environmentalists and people who are opposed to and worried about the nuclear industry. They say that the bill has more to do with the Conservative government's plan to sell off Canada's nuclear industry and then set up an insurance scheme, and it knows the current act and scheme is completely inadequate, that takes the liability away from operators and puts it in the public purse.
By setting the cap at $650 million, we know there is a provision where a special tribunal could be set up by the Minister of Natural Resources and if further funds were required, they would come out of the public purse. This basically means that a nuclear operator would have to pay out a maximum of $650 million and the public would be on the hook for millions and possibly billions of dollars in the case of an accident.
Right off the top, the numbers do not work. If we are going to amend the act, and it should be amended, then let us do it properly. Let us ensure we set the liability at a level that is within the context of what happens in the international community.
We are also very concerned that Canada is signing on to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and that this could turn Canada into a nuclear waste dump. There could be all kinds of contamination as a result of that as well. Some of my colleagues today, the members for Trinity—Spadina, Western Arctic and Windsor—Tecumseh, have spoken about what we see as the long term impact and effects of this bill. Let it be said that the $650 million is very inadequate.
We worked very diligently in committee to seek amendments to the bill. We put forward over 35 amendments to try to improve the bill, the accountability, the discretion of the minister, the level of liability and so on. It is a surprise to me that those amendments failed and here we are today with the bill at third and final reading.
When we look at the history of the nuclear industry globally, but certainly in North America, a long record of incidents have taken place. My colleague from Trinity—Spadina referred to a list of nuclear accidents that we have been referencing.
When we read that list, which is 14 pages long, it is pretty scary to know these incidents have taken place with a fair amount of regularity over the decades, beginning August 21, 1945, at the beginning of the nuclear age.
It was in Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, U.S.A., where a criticality accident with a plutonium metal assembly happened. Harry Daghlian was hand stacking tungsten carbide brakes around a plutonium metal assembly. The plutonium assembly compromised two hemispheres with a total mass of 6.2 kilograms, just short of bare critical mass. While moving a final brick, the experimenter noticed from neutron counters that the final brick would make the assembly supercritical. At this point, he accidentally dropped the brick onto the pile, providing sufficient neutron reflection to result in a supercritical power excursion. The experimenter quickly removed the final brick and disassembled the assembly. He sustained a dose of 510 rem and died 28 days later.
I do not know all the science behind it, but it seems to me it is important to reflect on these things because that happened in our modern day age. This is in the era of the beginning of the nuclear age in our world and we can see that these accidents have taken place, beginning in August 1945. Some of them are seared in our brains as we have watched images on television, particularly Chernobyl. I am reading from the list.
Even in Chalk River on May 24, 1958, there was fuel damage. Due to inadequate cooling, a damaged uranium fuel rod caught fire and was torn in two as it was being removed from the core at the reactor. The fire was extinguished, but not before radioactive combustion products contaminated the interior of the reactor building and, to a lesser degree, an area surrounding the lab site. Over 600 people were employed in the cleanup.
There was an incident at Hanford Works in Hanford, Washington on April 7, 1962. This is the one I am more familiar with, not that I was there but because Hanford is very close to Vancouver. It is something that peace and anti-nuclear movements in British Columbia have watched for a very long time because millions of litres of contaminants are stored in Hanford.
It is a vast area in Washington state. It is surrounded by security and fences. It is obviously not publicly accessible. There is an international boundary, the 49th parallel, but when it comes to a disaster, that boundary does not mean anything. These contaminants can get into the groundwater, wells, rivers and the air, so these are a very serious situations.
In April 1962 there was a criticality incident with plutonium solution. An accident at a plutonium processing plant resulted in a criticality incident. Plutonium solution was spilled on the floor of a solvent extraction hood. Improper operation of valves allowed a mixture of plutonium solutions in a tank that became supercritical, prompting criticality alarms to sound and the subsequent evacuation of the building.
Exact details of the accident could not be reconstructed. The excursion continued at lower power levels for 37.5 hours, during which a remotely controlled robot was used to check conditions and operate valves. Criticality was probably terminated by a precipitation of plutonium in the tank to a non-critical state. Three people had significant radiation exposures.
The list goes on and on.
Probably the most infamous one, and one that had global proportions, was on April 25, 1986, the complete meltdown at Chernobyl. This involved a mishandled reactor safety test, which led to an uncontrolled power excursion causing a severe steam explosion, meltdown and release of radioactive material at the Chernobyl nuclear plant approximately 100 kilometres northeast of Kiev. Approximately 50 fatalities resulted from the accident and in the immediate aftermath, most of those being the cleanup personnel. In addition, nine fatal cases of thyroid cancer in children were attributed to the accident.
The explosion and combustion of the graphite reactor core spread radioactive material over much of Europe. I am sure like many people, I remember the images of that accident and the fear the people felt. One hundred thousand people were evacuated from the areas immediately surrounding Chernobyl, in addition to 300,000 from the areas of heavy fallout in the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
An exclusion zone was created surrounding the site, encompassing approximately 1,000 miles, or 3,000 kilometres. It has been deemed off limits for human habitation for an indefinite period. I know there have been documentaries about what happened at Chernobyl by people who have gone back and filmed this vast area, which is now, in effect, a dead zone where human habitation cannot take place.
These are very serious matters and a bill like this gives us cause for reflection about the nuclear industry in Canada. The bill is setting the stage for expansion in Canada. In fact, I asked my colleague from Western Arctic earlier, because he is our energy critic and he is very knowledgeable on this issue, far more knowledgeable than me, what he thought about the bill in terms of what it meant for the future. He pointed out that Bill C-5 was really the tip of the iceberg.
We know nuclear energy is being looked at as a solution to greenhouse gas for producing energy sources. He informed the House of the situation at the Peace River nuclear plant being contemplated, with transmission capacity that could go to Montana. Again, we see a pattern of decision-making and privatization that is linking us with the enormous energy needs in the United States.
These issues are linked. What begins as a bill in terms of what appears to be a question of liability is linked to a much larger question as to where the government plans to take us in the nuclear industry and the kinds of expansion plans contemplated.
People in my riding are very concerned about that. People feel adequate safeguards are not in place today. We have had the whole debate in the House about what happened at Chalk River with the shutdown of the reactor and the crisis it created for medical isotopes. We saw the debacle that took place with the Conservative government when it fired the head of the organization. This is all part of a greater scheme of a privatization and a sell-off of these nuclear resources to put it in private hands.
On the one hand, we have to debate that. We have to examine that from a public policy perspective. On the other hand, we have a responsibility, as parliamentarians, to ensure the legal framework is put in place, whether we talk about public policy or private operations, and that the liability will be adequate.
I hope that I have provided information today to alert people to the fact that the bill really does not go far enough. It is something that will pass, we presume, unless we can hold it up and that is what we are going to try to do. I think, as we now move into new decades of nuclear expansion, it makes one wonder if we will be again back at the drawing board if we do have a significant incident in this country.
God forbid that that ever happens, but if it does happen, will the provisions in this bill have the capacity to deal with the claims that would result when people in a local community, businesses, livelihoods, people's health and children's health are impacted by such an accident?
It is interesting to note that in the U.S. the liability is $10 billion. That is actually shared among the plants. It is a joint effort. That is more than 10 times higher than what we are talking about in this country. Again, we have to question why has the limit been set at $650 million. It just seems to be woefully inadequate.
We would like to see the bill not move forward, not pass. We would like to see further consideration on this question of liability. We would like to see discussion and some really clear plans from the federal Conservative government as to exactly what its intentions are with the nuclear industry here in Canada.
While we would certainly agree that the current bill has to be changed because the liability is so low, we do not think this particular bill will do the job. It needs to be contained within a much broader policy debate about the nuclear industry. The paramount question in that debate and in any legislation that comes forward is the public interest.
It is not the interest of the nuclear industry. It is not the interests of the people who want to just suck up more and more energy and more and more capacity for energy, it is not the interests of U.S. multinational corporations who might be looking to Canada as a place where they want to do business. The primary concern is public health, the public interest, and the interests for future generations.
In that regard, the bill seems to be very short-sighted. I want to thank my colleagues, the member for Vancouver Island North and the member for Western Arctic, who have been our two primary critics. They worked really hard on this bill. They went through it, every clause. They figured out that it was very limited and it was something that we could not support. At committee, they went to bat and put in a number of amendments. It was very surprising that those amendments were defeated by the government and by the other parties.
I know the Bloc put a few amendments and we certainly appreciate that. However, at the end of the day, the bill has not been changed. So we move forward now with a bill that is very limited.
Therefore, we will be speaking on this and we will be pointing out these deficiencies. We want to draw people's attention to the fact that the bill is now at this very critical stage. We are going to certainly do what we can to make sure that it does not pass, not because we do not want to see a liability set but because we want to make sure that it is being done in a proper way. That it is going to be done in a way that protects people so that if there is an incident, an accident, that people will actually have the capability to make a claim and receive some sort of compensation. It will not be at the discretion of a tribunal that the minister sets up, but a due process and a fund will be created which will protect people. Surely, that is the most important thing that we are considering here today.
I urge my colleagues to consider those concerns that we have. I am very proud of the fact that we have taken the time to look at the bill and to come to the conclusions that we have based on what we believe to be in the public interest of Canadians, and that is why we will be opposing the bill.