Notes for remarks by Michael Binder, President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
Check against delivery
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I am pleased to be here today to discuss the role of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (the CNSC), particularly with respect to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), and the most recent outage of the National Research Universal (NRU) nuclear reactor.
This is the third opportunity I have had to appear before this Committee in less than a year, most recently on February 24, 2009, to discuss a heavy water leak from the NRU in December 2008.
CNSC: Effective and Independent Nuclear Regulator
I am sure by now members of the Committee are quite familiar with the CNSC, but I would like to take this opportunity to remind members of a couple of key points.
The CNSC is Canada’s only nuclear regulator, and nuclear regulation is exclusively a federal jurisdiction.
The CNSC is an effective and independent regulator. It is a quasi-judicial administrative tribunal which operates under the Nuclear Safety Control Act.
Its mandate is very clear: it regulates for the protection of health, safety and security of Canadians and the environment, as well as respects Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The Commission’s decisions are final and binding. They are subject to review only by the Federal Court and not by the Government.
When making its decisions, members of the Commission take into account all relevant factors without compromising safety.
Overview of Mandate and Regulatory Scope
The CNSC’s regulatory scope stretches from nuclear power reactors, uranium mines and mills, fuel fabrication facilities and waste management, to nuclear substances and radiation devices, and many other facilities and activities in between.
How good Canada’s nuclear regulatory framework is and how well we are doing as a nuclear regulator is currently being assessed by a team of 20 international experts from 13 countries under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
These experts arrived in Canada last Sunday, and will wrap up their activities on June 12. They will be visiting many sites across Canada during their stay here. They will release a publicly available comprehensive report sometime in the fall.
Let me turn to the on-going outage of the NRU. To quote Mr. Richard A Meserve, the chairman of the International Nuclear Safety Group and the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission “Guarding against the rare but possibly catastrophic accident requires eternal vigilance and a never-ending fight against complacency.” This is what the CNSC does.
CNSC staff is located and work on-site at Chalk River Laboratories (CRL), and oversees all licensed activities AECL staff conduct with respect to the NRU.
These activities include the import of nuclear material to CRL, which is irradiated in the NRU, then removed and processed to extract Molybdenum-99 (Moly-99).
The CNSC also oversees the transport of the Moly-99 from CRL to MDS Nordion, in Kanata, Ontario.
With respect to medical radioisotopes, the CNSC issues licences for the production, processing, transport, import, export and possession of medical radioisotopes.
Health Canada regulates the use of biologics, which includes radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals.
CNSC staff is ready to consider and respond quickly to requests from licensees for licence amendments to possess increased quantities of alternative radioisotopes such as Thalium 201.
It is important to understand that the CNSC is not responsible for making sure that there is a sufficient supply of isotopes. The CNSC is, however, responsible for making sure that whatever isotope is being produced it is done in a safe way.
May 2009 NRU Heavy Water Leak and Outage
Following the trip of the reactor on Thursday May 14, 2009, the CNSC was informed by AECL on May 15 of signs of the heavy water leak from the NRU. AECL decided to keep the reactor shutdown and CNSC agreed with the decision.
Later in the day, AECL reported to the CNSC, informed the key federal departments and posted a bulletin on its public web site, of the presence of a small heavy water leak; that the reactor was safely shutdown; and that the leak posed no threat to workers, the public, the environment or nuclear safety.
AECL also noted the heavy water leak rate as being approximately five kilograms per hour, and that virtually all of the heavy water was being captured and stored in drums.
However, small amounts of that heavy water have evaporated, and continue to evaporate, resulting in releases of tritium to the environment through the NRU ventilation system. These releases have been and remain well below the CNSC’s regulatory limits and do not pose a risk to the health or safety of the public or our environment.
I would like to note that AECL demonstrated an adherence to good safety culture practices by keeping the NRU safely shutdown until the source of the leak was identified.
As AECL determines the course of future action regarding the leak, the CNSC will exercise our mandate and oversee AECL’s activities in the interest of protecting the health, safety, and security of the public and our environment.
Turning towards the future of NRU, CNSC and AECL have a formal protocol for the 2011 licensing of the NRU that defines the regulatory requirements including a schedule of submissions. The first major submission from AECL will be an integrated safety review intended to identify the necessary improvements to the NRU to support an application for a further 10 years of operation. This submission planned for March of 2010 will include a complete assessment of all safety related equipment and components in NRU including the reactor vessel. AECL will then submit an overall safety case for the relicensing of the NRU in January 2011 and the Commission will hold public hearings in the second half of the year.
In our previous appearance before you, both the CNSC and AECL have promised to review and improve the release of public information. This was demonstrated by the proactive information disclosures by both organizations about this current event.
AECL has continued to keep the CNSC, the government and the public informed throughout its investigation process and now as it prepares to respond.
Let me assure you, our interest is clear: making accurate information available as broadly as possible and as quickly as possible.
As per our regulations this leak is a significant event and as such it must be reported to the Commission.
Furthermore, AECL is scheduled to appear before the Commission on June 11, 2009, at a regularly scheduled public meeting.
CNSC staff and AECL will present a Significant Development Report to the Commission at that time, including the most recent information on the NRU.
That meeting will be broadcast on our public Web site, so if members of this Committee aren’t able to make it to 280 Slater to attend the meeting in person, I encourage you to take it in virtually.
To conclude, the shortage of medical radioisotopes is obviously of great concern to Canadians.
And as far as the CNSC is concerned, the self-imposed safe shutdown and continued outage of the NRU by AECL, as a result of a heavy water leak, represents a strong adherence to good safety culture practices.
CNSC is ready and able to consider any proposal for the safe return of operations of the NRU or any other isotope producing facility.