Keen quits CNSC, claims concern for safety prompted downfall

Linda Keen yesterday told Don Newman on CBC’s Politics that the isotope “crisis” that precipitated her firing last January was just a convenient pretext. The real reason, she said, was her determination to introduce international reactor safety standards to Canada. She’s talking about the Ontario reactor competition, of course.

Applying international safety standards allegedly puts Canada’s reactor manufacturer, federally owned Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), behind Areva and Westinghouse, its light-water competitors in the Ontario competition. The federal government has plans for AECL, and Keen’s inconvenient fixation on safety hurt those plans. The implication being, the government is more interested in pumping up AECL’s value than enforcing safety.

What’s wrong with applying international safety standards to Canadian reactors? By itself, nothing. Too bad that’s not the issue. The issue is acceptable level of risk. Ms Keen, by all expert accounts, was far too zealous in applying the precautionary principle to her risk assessments. Instead of using reasonable level of risk as her benchmark, she insisted on mitigating risks that are, statistically, almost purely hypothetical.

Besides, the CNSC had already issued in October 2007 a regulatory document based on international standards. This was developed with input from AECL and its competitors.

 When the isotope fiasco hit the headlines last December, I said the whole flap proved the nuclear regulatory system works (see article). It’s true, it does work. The regulated company obeyed the regulator’s order not to restart the reactor, and when it became obvious that the head of the regulatory commission had a different conception of risk than everybody else involved, the proper authorities took steps to make it right.

What ensued thereafter—reprimands and counter-reprimands, both in the public eye—is a matter of employee relations.

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15 years ago

I am glad that Linda Keen has left. In my opinion, she was intent on eliminating the nuclear industry in Canada, not on nurturing it.

I saw this Keen fiasco as a dramatic proof that the Canadian nuclear regulatory system does not work. Worse than that, I think this kind of regulation is the primary impediment facing nuclear power expansion. It slows new development down, and thereby adds unbearable cost. It is not able to accommodate new designs in a reasonable time frame, making it impossible to set up small reactors. It is staffed with unqualified people who are rewarded for being unreasonably narrow in their assessment of risk. And then, after all the delays and antics, it usually approves what was proposed anyway, demonstrating that the whole discussion delay was a waste of time. The approval of a new reactor at Darlington or Bruce should take about a week – and the CNSC is going to stretch this out into years of highly paid bureaucratic fumbling. In my opinion, this is completely unacceptable.