Remarks by President Rumina Velshi at the Annual Waste Management Symposium

March 4, 2019

Phoenix, Arizona, United States of America

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Good morning everyone.

My name is Rumina Velshi and I am the President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, or the CNSC.  I took on this role in August 2018.

For over 30 years before that, I worked as a scientist, nuclear engineer and manager in Canada’s nuclear sector for Ontario Hydro and Ontario Power Generation. Before I begin, I wish to extend my thanks to the organizers and session co-chairs for the opportunity to present at this important and storied gathering. Waste management has been a key priority for many of you here and a focus of public concern about the nuclear sector for decades. It will undoubtedly remain so for years to come. For that reason, it is reassuring and inspiring to see so many dedicated and bright people come together in one place to ensure this important work continues.

The development and implementation of safe, responsible, sound and effective solutions to radioactive waste and decommissioning must remain a priority now and in the years to come. The future of the nuclear industry is closely linked to it.

My presentation will deal broadly with four themes:

  • my time so far with the CNSC and my vision going forward
  • the importance of international collaboration
  • the need for openness and transparency and
  • encouraging young people to get involved

My Vision

For those of you not familiar with the CNSC, you will learn much about us and what we do during the next few days as several CNSC staff will be participating in panels and making presentations. Briefly, we are Canada’s independent nuclear regulator and our focus is safety. We are responsible for regulating all things nuclear in Canada. From uranium mining, nuclear fuel, nuclear power and research reactors, medical, industrial and educational applications of nuclear substances, to radioactive waste management.

The CNSC comprises of:

  • Independent, quasi-judicial Commission, comprised of up to seven members, that makes licensing decisions for major nuclear facilities and activities, and
  •  An organization of over 900 staff who ensure compliance with the Commission’s decisions and conditions through inspections, enforcement and reporting.

These dedicated and expert staff are spread throughout Canada in regional offices and site offices at major nuclear facilities. The Commission’s decisions are based on the best available scientific and technical information and may be reviewed only in federal court, not by politicians. I had been a Commission member for over 6 years before I got appointed as president and CEO last August. So I was already quite familiar with the organization and much of the great work done by staff when I accepted this new role.

The CNSC’s four key priorities are:

  • to have a modern approach to nuclear regulation
  • to be a trusted regulator
  • to maintain our global nuclear influence
  • to improve management effectiveness

A modern approach to nuclear regulation means using science-based, risk-informed, and technically sound regulatory practices that take into account uncertainties and evolving expectations. This positions us to be able to evaluate the regulatory implications of new and innovative nuclear technologies. It also means ensuring that there is a culture that encourages open, professional and respectful scientific debate that is free from fear of any reprisal.

To be a trusted regulator is to be recognized by the public, Indigenous peoples and industry as independent, competent and transparent. It also means that we are seen as a credible source of scientific, technical and regulatory information.

Key to maintaining our global influence will be continuing our efforts to enhance international nuclear safety, in particular, collaborative efforts. Those efforts have important implications for radioactive waste and decommissioning – something I will address further in a few minutes.

Finally, improving management effectiveness means ensuring our organization is agile, highly skilled and representative of Canada’s diverse population. It also means that we are supported by modern management practices and tools, which allow us to respond to an evolving workforce and industry.

In addition to these priorities, I have a personal commitment to promote careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – for women and girls. As an engineer with almost 40 years in the nuclear industry, I have seen steps in the right direction to break down barriers for women in STEM.

But there is still a long way to go. We must start to recognize and address the cultural biases that are obstacles for women to enter and thrive in these fields. This is everyone’s responsibility.

When we empower women, everyone benefits. I challenge every person in this room to be an ally and take action to make positive changes toward gender balance in the workplace. Beyond these priorities, I also have a specific expectation for waste management and decommissioning in Canada. Quite simply, all radioactive waste and decommissioning must be well managed and safe. There is quite a variety of waste and decommissioning projects and activities underway in Canada and they solicit a lot of public interest. If we aren’t able to demonstrate that the waste is well-managed and safe, and that we have involved Indigenous peoples and the public, many of these projects are unlikely to proceed.

I recall recent experiences in Canada and contrast those with stories I have heard from other countries as being illustrative of this – two in particular come to mind. First, in 2010 in Canada there were significant concerns expressed about the proposed shipment of contaminated steam generators or boilers. While it was before my time, I remember following it in the news. One of our nuclear plant operators wanted to ship 16 steam generators to Sweden for recycling. The backlash and fear that resulted in communities and their representatives along the route, which included a couple of Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, were unprecedented. CNSC staff met with parliamentarians, mayors and municipal councils and Indigenous leaders and communities prior to the Commission licensing hearing. They explained the request, the CNSC’s responsibilities, and our commitment to ensure safety in an impartial, objective and science-based manner.

The science showed that the steam generators were minimally radioactive and posed no real threat to public health or the environment, regardless of the accident scenario. The Commission ultimately approved the request to ship these steam generators. However, public opposition continued and those steam generators still sit on the operator’s site – a decision the operator made. I contrast that with a recent presentation we had from Mark Foy, Chief Nuclear Inspector at the Office of Nuclear Regulation in the United Kingdom, on decommissioning and legacy remediation. One of the issues he discussed was the removal of five boilers from the Berkeley nuclear power station and their transport to Sweden for recycling. He showed us a picture of the boilers being trucked down a narrow street in a town with curious onlookers lining both sides, seemingly unconcerned. The difference could not have been starker.

Was it something the regulator did or did not do? Was there something qualitatively different about public perceptions in the two countries? Or was it something else? If things work out as proposed in Canada, used nuclear fuel will be transported across Canadian highways or railways in the decades ahead to get to their final destination in a deep geological repository. If the transport of minimally radioactive steam generators created such concern that they still sit in place, what are the chances that the transport of used nuclear fuel will be well received? It is clear to me that none of us has all the answers so we need to be committed to learning and sharing at all times. Which brings me to the second issue I would like to discuss; the importance of international collaboration.

International Collaboration

I recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to radioactive waste management around the world. And I have no doubt that for the public, as far as the nuclear industry goes, concerns over the management of radioactive waste are second only to those over severe nuclear accidents. So it is imperative that we seek solutions that are right for our respective waste profiles and social realities. Each country of course has its own particular context and considerations and is looking for the appropriate solutions. For example, what does the evidence show as possible and practical solutions for a country’s waste? What is the tolerance for risk? Are there financial limits on a proposed solution or is the sky the limit?
What, if any, are the barriers or inducements to innovation? And, of course, what is the public sentiment toward waste management?

There are so many variables and issues to consider that it could easily get overwhelming. All of the above speaks to me to the importance of international collaboration, both at the regulatory and operational level. The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management is an excellent example of that collaboration. Through that forum we demonstrate our commitment to achieve and maintain a high level of safety in the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste. It supports cooperation and experience-sharing and compliance with international agreements.

At the CNSC, we take pride in the fact that we have been awarded several good practices through the Joint Convention process. We also show our commitment to transparency by publishing our tri-annual Country report on our website as well as all of the questions we receive from Member States and the answers we provide. We need to share our experiences, our lessons learned and our best practices to be able to truly explore what might work best in our respective contexts and how we can continually improve. International Atomic Energy Agency peer reviews are another great tool available to accomplish this. Welcoming regular rigorous assessments by teams of international experts should be at the top of every Member State’s priority list.

Canada fully supports, welcomes and participates in International Atomic Energy Agency peer review missions. We are hosting two this year: an International Regulatory Review Service Mission, our first mission since 2009; and our first-ever Emergency Preparedness Review Service, or EPREV, mission.

We welcome the findings and recommendations from both missions and expect they will help both enhance public confidence in Canada’s approach to waste management as well as identify improvement opportunities for us. We encourage all Member States to welcome peer reviews and to publish all findings and recommendations publicly so their responses can be tracked and reported on. Tracking and reporting on our progress, or even our challenges, is vitally important so that we can learn and support each other.

For example, in Canada, our modern mining operations manage their waste in a manner that we consider best in class, based on the principle of polluter pays. No uranium mining licence is issued today without a proponent being able to demonstrate that they will be able to safely manage the waste generated and remediate the site once operations cease. Not only do they have to develop a plan but they must put up a financial guarantee to ensure that the funds needed will be available. But it was not always that way and efforts are underway to remediate several legacy sites where the management of the waste was an afterthought, if it was considered at all.

So we have much to share with countries that have uranium mining operations or are considering uranium mining projects. But we are also eager to learn from those who are dealing with or have dealt with legacy contaminated sites. Regardless of the issues we are dealing with, we must be mindful that in this day and age everything we do is expected to be done in the full light of day. And that brings me to my third issue – the need for openness and transparency.

Openness and Transparency

As I mentioned earlier, being a trusted regulator is crucial. The public must have confidence in our work and in our processes by which nuclear risks are managed.

Being open and transparent are key pillars for trust and are taken very seriously at the CNSC. Not only do we open up our licensing proceedings, to all stakeholders, which are webcast live on our website, we encourage them to participate in our proceedings. We go one step further and offer financial support to eligible parties to further enable their participation in these proceedings. That financial support is funded by our licensees. I would be lying if I told you that some licensees were entirely enthusiastic about paying for critics to participate in Commission processes. But I think they all acknowledge the value in encouraging and supporting public participation.

That participation allows anyone with an interest to get their questions, concerns, suggestions and evidence on the record and requires proponents and CNSC staff to respond.

Commission Members then consider all of the information presented and issue decisions based on the science and the evidence. Of course, being able to participate in the process by no means guarantees that all will be pleased with the result. But a lack of public involvement in the process runs the risk of a lack of social acceptability, particularly when it comes to waste management and decommissioning projects. We hope that by encouraging and welcoming participation all will acknowledge that there is a fair process in place that respects and values their input. But this is by no means sufficient.

We also know that most of our stakeholders and the general public want as much information as possible and as often as possible. This can be a challenge for us and our regulated community since we deal with very technical and voluminous information. We have made great strides in recent years to provide information tailored to the needs of our various audiences; information that is factual, informative and engaging. We are also working towards making raw data available to stakeholders. We want to ensure that we are giving expert civil society organizations access to the information and raw data they need for conducting their own detailed, independent analyses. At all times, we have to make sure that the science is sound. And ideally, we communicate the soundness of the science that makes sense and exemplaires s with everyone.

That is easier said than done of course, and there is still more we can do to improve. We are committed to doing so. We also require that our major licensees implement public information programs to keep the public informed of their activities. A frequent request is for licensees to publish their waste management plans – the public wants to know what the short and long-term plans are for any waste generated. Yet we regularly hear from licensees that these documents are proprietary and cannot be released. There should be a way for licensees to provide some of the requested information without losing their competitive edge.

That is a top-of-mind issue for us and one we are committed to try and resolve to the satisfaction of everyone. But it’s not all about sharing information, consultation is equally important, if not more so. We consult all stakeholders, industry and non-industry alike, on much of what we do. We value all input received and take the time to disposition the comments and suggestions that are shared with us. Increasingly, there is a push for licensees to make decommissioning plans available for public consultation as part of their development. That is something we fully support.

It is tough to argue against the idea that a community should have input into how nuclear facilities will be dealt with once they reach their end of life. Speaking of community input, there are no communities more important to the work we do than those of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Indigenous peoples’ rights are entrenched in the Canadian Constitution. The courts have also found that the government must consult and remedy any impacts to those rights from projects or issues for which the government has a decision to make. As an agency of the government, that consultation responsibility falls on us, the CNSC, for nuclear projects. We take that responsibility with the utmost sincerity and value the relationships we have formed with many Indigenous communities. I have recently met with leadership from some Indigenous communities and have very much appreciated the knowledge and perspectives that were shared. I look forward to meeting with many more Indigenous leaders in the months to come and cementing our relationships with Indigenous communities for the long term. Speaking of the long-term brings me to my last issue – encouraging young people to get involved in radioactive waste management and decommissioning.

Encouraging Young People

It gives me great hope to see so many young, bright and eager people in the audience this morning and at this event generally. I hope your presence here means that you recognize the importance of work related to radioactive waste management and decommissioning in the decades ahead. Regardless of whether the nuclear industry expands, shrinks or maintains the status quo, developing and implementing appropriate solutions for the waste that has been generated is not something nice to do, it is imperative. And I have every confidence that you, the young people out there, will be integral to helping us get there. I don’t think it is a cliché to say that you are a generation of innovators. How could you not be?

In this interconnected world, you have had to find your way and distinguish yourselves in ways that my generation could not have imagined. And, much like with climate change, you are being asked to address problems for which you are not responsible but have inherited. One example I came across recently that gives me hope and that I think speaks somewhat to the situation you face is that of Boyan Slat. Boyan is a 24 year old Dutch inventor who is also the founder and CEO of a non-profit called The Ocean Cleanup. Boyan founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013 with a mission to rid the oceans of plastic after becoming concerned with plastic pollution while scuba diving in Greece in 2011. He designed a system of solar-powered, modular and flexible floating booms that float on the water and passively gather plastic waste.

He has received significant financial support for this project, but has also faced considerable skepticism and criticism from many in the scientific community. He says that he has never envisioned his system as the ultimate solution, but one possible part of the solution to a significant problem. The system was taken out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, midway between California and Hawaii, for its first real-world test last October. It didn’t work as hoped, to the delight of many of his critics. But Boyan and his team remain undeterred, and, just as importantly, his financial backers are standing by him. They have returned the system to shore for repairs and to apply lessons learned and hope to get an improved system back out as soon as possible.

So why have I shared this story with you? I think it illustrates well the can-do spirit I sense in this room and among young people generally. You are ready to take ownership of the world’s problems and seek innovative ways to address them. Boyan’s story might not be directly analogous to radioactive waste, as we don’t have the luxury of getting things wrong. But it does reinforce for me all the great abilities, intentions and spirit I see in so many young people today. It gives me hope that you will be integral to finding solutions to so many of our problems. One way you will be able to apply your talents and spirit to these problems is by helping us focus on the right conversations or discussions. Perhaps we are missing a larger conversation or discussion that we need to have in Canada and in other countries as well related to radioactive waste.

Our director of waste and decommissioning, Karine Glenn, who is part of the CNSC team attending this symposium, shared with me recently a favourite expression of hers. “You can be for or against nuclear energy, but everybody must be for the safe management of radioactive waste.” That made a lot of sense to me when I first heard it, and it still does in theory. In practice though, I wonder if radioactive waste serves as a useful cudgel for those with a particular point of view to hammer on the nuclear industry and continue to stoke fear and concern. I don’t need to tell you in this room that the science, technology and programs in place are all there to demonstrate and support the safe handling, transport and storage of radioactive wastes. But that argument doesn’t seem to resonate well enough with some members of the public. Perhaps we need a reframing of the discussion, a values-based discussion, led by young people such as you in this room and others out there to help us take another look at the issue.

The waste is here, it exists. And as much as some might like to pretend or wish that this wasn’t the case, don’t we have the responsibility to do everything we can to address it as soon as possible? Is that another problem that we are going to place on the shoulders of generations to come? I know this is all easy for me to say, because I get to decide with my Commission colleagues whether a project proceeds or not based on the scientific and technical evidence. Framing the conversation with that evidence as its base but broadened to include values considerations is an important challenge. I think that is a conversation that needs to be had and I think young people are best placed to initiate it. I encourage you to get involved, take ownership and lead us boldly into the future.

Conclusion

So what do I want you to take away from these remarks? First, in many of our countries, waste management and decommissioning will be the defining issue related to the nuclear industry for decades to come. We need to make sure it is done right; that any actions taken are science and evidence based, and with safety at the forefront at all times. Second, international collaboration is the most important means to help us all to get there. We need to learn from and support each other as best and often as we can. Finally, young people will be integral to developing and implementing the solutions and to reframing the discussion. Young people are citizens of the information age so openness and transparency is second nature. You have also grown up in the midst of successive problems requiring bold and innovative solutions. Waste management and decommissioning is an issue requiring the best of all of us – together, I know that is possible.

Thank you.

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