Public opinion and nuclear power: the democratic disconnect

For students of politics, public opinion, and democracy, regulatory hearings on nuclear energy are a rich mother lode of data. Take the CNSC hearing on Bruce Power’s plan to ship 16 used nuclear steam generators across the Atlantic to Sweden for recycling. This was covered in exhaustive detail over three days. If you followed the hearing, what did you take away from it? Is it safe to ship the steam generators?

CNSC staff certainly appear to think it is safe. They have recommended that the Commission approve Bruce Power’s plan. Who are the staff? Well, they are subject matter experts. Their job according to the CNSC’s website is to “review applications for licences according to regulatory requirements, make recommendations to the Commission, and enforce compliance with the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, regulations, and any licence conditions imposed by the Commission.”

And what is the Commission itself? In its own words, it is a statutory administrative tribunal exercising quasi-judicial powers. Powers to do what? To regulate the nuclear sector in Canada.

The organization itself is designed and intended to not just ensure that nuclear activities in Canada are carried out safely, but also to reassure the public that this is indeed the case. So it is set up as a tribunal: the Commission is represented by up to seven permanent Commissioners, of whom one is designated as President and CEO. This group of Commissioners has the statutory power to make decisions regarding nuclear activities in Canada.

When you go to a public hearing, the “Commission” is the group of people sitting in the north end of the hearing room, facing south, east, and west. Staff, applicant(s), and intervenors face the Commission (i.e., they face north). Intervenors, applicants, licensees, and staff make statements on the record. Much of the hearing is a formal dialog between individual Commissioners and staff, applicant(s), and intervenors, with the President presiding over the dialog and often actively participating. So, for example, a Commissioner asks an intervenor a question, then asks staff and/or the applicant a question, and on it goes.

Like every human organization, the CNSC is as much “who” as “what.” So who are the Commissioners? To get some idea, you can read their biographies on the CNSC website. According to these bios, three of the Commissioners are or were senior-level bureaucrats. There is one academic, a consultant, a former senior politician, a medical doctor, a businessman. Some are permanent members, others are temporary.

How did they become commissioners? By Order in Council. Technically that means they were appointed by Canada’s Governor General, who, again technically, is the British sovereign’s legal representative and the head of Canada’s government. Does that mean the Governor General one day told the Prime Minister “I want Moyra McDill to be a Commissioner at the CNSC; make it so”? Of course not. Appointments via Orders in Council are political appointments. In practice, OiC appointments are recommended by the permanent bureaucracy and approved by the federal cabinet, the “Governor in Council,” which acts on behalf of the Governor General. OiCs are almost always rubber-stamped by the Governor General; like Great Britain, Canada is a constitutional monarchy.

The President/CEO receives his or her designation similarly, but in a separate and distinct clause in the OiC. First the Governor in Council makes a person a Commissioner; then the GiC makes that Commissioner the President and CEO. The President retains his/her designation at the pleasure of the government.

And for those who don’t know, the federal cabinet is made up, almost without exception, of elected politicians who have been invited by the Prime Minister to head federal government departments. Effectively, the cabinet is the government of the day. Not to be confused with the permanent bureaucracy.

Therefore, CNSC Commissioners are political appointees.

Now politics, no matter where on this planet you live, is all about who gets what. Remember this. It will help explain the power behind many of the criticisms of CNSC decisions.

As I mentioned, it was very obvious during last week’s CNSC hearing on the Bruce Power steam generator shipment that CNSC staff believe the proposed shipment represents no danger to the public. Though by far most intervenors did not agree, it appears the Commissioners are satisfied with the staff’s assessment. I will be very surprised if they deny Bruce Power’s application. Their formal decision will be published in around six weeks, along with the Record of Proceedings. I’ll put it up here when it becomes available.

As anybody who reads this blog knows, I am a nuclear advocate. So nobody will be surprised to hear me say I agree that the Bruce Power shipment poses no danger and should be allowed to proceed.

But I also watched and listened to most of what was said at the hearing. I doubt many reasonable and intelligent people would disagree that the CNSC staff are right. Most reasonable and intelligent people would agree that most of the intervenors who oppose the shipment presented weak or incoherent arguments and exaggerations.

The most powerful arguments in opposition to the shipment were the ones that combined the precautionary principle with insinuations that the CNSC is in bed with the industry. The precautionary principle is a pseudo philosophy that recommends extreme caution if there is any probability of an accident that could endanger the public or environment. Not some probability, any probability. And not some danger, any danger.

The Precautionary Principle therefore lends a veneer of legitimacy to anybody’s reason for opposing anything. If I were against sidewalks and wanted them banned, I would invoke the precautionary principle. I would say they are not safe, and point to the probability that you will be harmed if you walk down one. And by “harm” I could include bruising should you bump into a fire hydrant or telephone pole. It doesn’t matter that that probability is extremely low, or that the harm is slight. As long as the probability of any harm is not zero, that means there is a risk—therefore sidewalks should be banned.

In the case of the Bruce Power steam generator shipment, CNSC staff said that the level of radioactivity in the machines is so low that it doesn’t pose a risk to the public or environment. So the smart anti-nuclear intervenors invoke the precautionary principle, which says any level of radioactivity is unacceptable. And then they accuse the CNSC of siding with the industry.

This filters into media stories. Here’s an example of the precautionary principle getting legitimacy in a Toronto Star story:

Environmentalists also view [the recycling company]’s recycling process as suspect. A [recycling company] representative confirmed Tuesday the recycled metal still contains radioactivity.

And Nathan Cullen, a federal opposition member of Parliament, told the Regina Leader Post the CNSC is a “lapdog.” If you attend a regulatory hearing at which anti-nuclear intervenors give presentations, you’ll become familiar with this ploy. Most anti-nuclear activists use regulatory hearings as a soap-box to weigh in against the technology. Often the content of their presentations is off-topic. Almost always it is weak. When the weakness and/or irrelevance of their assertions becomes apparent during dialog with the Commissioners, they fall back on the lapdog charge. How can the Commission possibly be impartial, they say. The Commission is in bed with the industry.

That is the intent behind Cullen’s comment to the Leader Post. Cullen has been hammering away on the lapdog theme ever since the infamous NRU medical isotope episode which led to the demotion of Linda Keen, a former CNSC president. Cullen has repeatedly referred to Keen’s demotion as a “firing.” This is absolutely not correct. Keen was demoted from her position as president; she kept her position as a Commissioner. She is not a Commissioner today because she resigned. She then sued the government for constructive dismissal, and lost. When she resigned, I said at the time that her demotion was purely a matter of employee relations. As I have some familiarity with OiC appointments, I predicted she would lose her suit. I was right.

Cullen and others point up the Keen demotion as evidence of government interference with the bureaucracy. The CNSC is supposed to be independent of the government of the day. “Firing” the president allegedly shows just how politicized the atmosphere is under the current government.

In the case of nuclear regulation it most definitely is politicized, but not because of the current government. It’s politicized because of anti-nuclear politicians like Cullen, who misrepresent the public record.

On an intellectual level, then, the assertions of the CNSC’s critics are clearly devoid of substance. But that’s not the point. The point is the assertions made it into print. They are therefore public opinion.

There is little nuclear proponents can do about this, other than to point out that this is nonsense. Hopefully they can do this effectively.

Meanwhile, though, the CNSC hearings should be promoted as an example of the best that democracy has to offer. The system works. That’s not news, but it can be dressed up as news.

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12 years ago

Excellent analogy for the precautionary principle universal use to oppose anything, and a good background on the working of these public hearings.

12 years ago

Joffan, thanks. I should say that anti-nukes use the Precautionary Principle in parallel with the linear-no-threshold hypothesis of the health effects of radioactivity. They have succeeded in making everyone fear radioactivity at any level. If something involves radioactivity at any level—even if it is far below the regulatory limit—then that something must be avoided.

Plus, they ignore natural sources. More evidence of their misanthropism, I guess: if it is produced by a human, it’s bad.

And on top of that, there’s the hormesis hypothesis. Rod Adams at Atomic Insights reported on a mainstream media piece by a Canadian anti-nuke who may be rethinking his belief that all radiation is dangerous at any level.

Plus, they ignore natural sources. More evidence of their misanthropism, I guess: if it is produced by a human, it’s bad

I don’t recall worldwide youth and progressive protests when North Korea started up a plutonium production reactor in the early 90s. Everyone knew it was merely for bomb-making, not for anything more sinister.

Radioactivity produced by humans is OK with them unless, very specifically, it is radiation produced in the process of depriving government of fossil fuel revenue.

12 years ago

GRL, good point about North Korea. Nuclear weapons are only bad in western democracies. No problem if some deranged dictator has them, and starves his people in the process of getting them.

I don’t see “progressive” protests against Iran’s centrifuges either. Either progressives no longer oppose nuclear weapons, or they don’t oppose nuclear energy.

And very interesting observation about government fossil fuel revenue. British Columbia will pay you $1,130 to install an efficient gas furnace, but won’t give you a dime to install an electric furnace—even though BC electricity is eight times as clean as highly efficient gas when it comes to space heating. See

BC has a carbon tax, which covers natural gas (among other things).

Sort of like a crack dealer providing free pipes.

12 years ago

In terms of electric furnaces does it make more sense for BC to sell its electricity to California or keep its own electricity for domestic consumption for things such as home heating. My understanding is that electric heating/AC is only more carbon efficient to the existent that entire North American would be powered by nuclear or hydro. So the electricity freed up for export in BC by having everyone heat their home by gas would displace a higher amount of CO2 emissions from coal power and gas power in the US than the emissions from everyone using natural gas AC/heat in BC and make the province more money from their hydro facilities to boot. (In reality natural gas AC is used very minimally anywhere).

Now historically for many years interties were limited between BC, Quebec, and the US thus it made more sense to reduce gas consumption in Canada as gas could be exported or stored easier than electricity that had no place to go. However in the past twenty years most provinces now have pretty extensive links to the US grid. Hydro Quebec for example just announced an additional HVDC line to New England last week.


12 years ago


It would be the irony of ironies if California (a possible BC electricity export market, if the Pacific Intertie can handle the traffic, which I think it now can) were to end up importing coal-fired power from another jurisdiction. And I guess that would be worse than CA buying hydro-generated power from BC, even if that means BC residents use more gas.

But CA has made it clear it won’t import coal-fired power. Its emission standard is based on gas. So from my viewpoint I don’t see much difference between BC selling hydro to CA (thereby displacing gas-fired power) or selling hydro for space heating in BC. Each jurisdiction is supposed to implement its own carbon reduction policies.

Of course it really boils down to economics. BC can probably sell hydro (especially peaking power) for a lot more out-of-province than it can at home. I know Hydro Quebec walked away from a deal to supply power for electric space heating to the Canadian federal government because it realized it could get a better price in New England. As a result, the Cdn feds get that heat from natural gas.

The pan-continental strategy should be to reduce grid emission intensity to below that of combined-cycle gas (around 550 grams CO2 per kWh). The only way to do that is to get cracking on nuclear construction.

Resistive heating of houses is inefficient, heat pumps are not.

Perhaps BC is subsidizing heat pump installation? That would be the best of all: displacement of multiple therms of in-the-house gas combustion, which as we have seen all too often leads to of-the-neighbourhood combustion, by a single “therm”, so to speak, of electricity.

Also, reduced line losses getting it to the residential heat pump in BC compared to shipping it to California for whatever purpose there.

(How fire can be domesticated)

12 years ago

GRL, yes BC does also offer incentives for heat pumps. They might be a good idea in the Lower Mainland and in parts of the Island (Did I hear somewhere that Patrick Moore sells heat pumps?)

But the rest of the province? From my experience in Chetwynd in wintertime, I think you’d need more than a heat pump to keep from freezing. And if BC is truly green I can’t think of anything cleaner than BC electricity, in that part of the world anyway.