“I Thought They Were Shareholders.” My First Look at a Hearing with the CNSC, Our Nuclear Watchdog

I spent the early part of this week in Mistissini, the largest Cree community in Eeyou Istchee, the Cree Territory of northern Quebec, particpating in a two-day licencing hearing held by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The hearing was part of the CNSC’s decision process for the licencing of the Matoush Project, a proposed advanced uranium exploration project (i.e. test mine) that is being developed by Strateco Resources. Among anti-nuclear folks the CNSC has a pretty poor reputation for bias and coziness with the industry, what I saw and heard during the hearing confirmed this. Rather than appearing as an independent watchdog both staff and commissioners seemed to go out of their way to defend the industry and played down or completely ignored problems and issues at existing and past uranium mines and other parts of the nuclear fuel chain.

I was in Mistissini for another hearing in November 2010 - an environmental assessment hearing on the same project. The EA processes conducted by panels convened under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and by the CNSC under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, were supposed to deal with the major issues associated with the project, while this week’s licencing hearing would typically deal with more detailed technical matters.

From what happened in Mistissini it was obvious that these earlier processes had massively failed in addressing people’s concerns or allowing them to feel their voices had been heard. Little wonder, given that requests to hold off further authorizations of the project were ignored by the federal government (based on recommendations to proceed from the federal review panel and the CNSC).

Far more people than anticipated signed up to address the Commission, which had to extend the sessions on the first day until 9:30 pm and add a second day. The large majority of statements and questions were about people’s broad concerns and fears about uranium mining in their territory. In some cases it was apparent that people didn’t understand the project as they confused the risks of mining with downstream risks in the nuclear chain. The overwhelming majority of individuals did not support the project and Chief Richard Shecapio gave an impassioned and well-reasoned speech calling for the proposal to be rejected and for a moratorium on uranium exploration and mining across the Cree territory and the rest of Quebec.

Commission President and CEO Michael Binder made it clear at the start that the mandate of the commission was not to examine the role of the nuclear industry, moratoria on uranium mining, etc. He explained the mandate of the CNSC was just about the environmental, health, and safety aspects of the specific proposed project and that they did not even have a mandate to evaluate the social acceptability of the project. What about the obligations of all federal departments and agencies to meaningfully consult and accommodate Aboriginal peoples?

Throughout the hearing Mr. Binder made comments about how perfectly safe and fine everything is at Saskatchewan uranium mines. On several occasions when people raised concerns about uranium mining he responded with questions back to speakers about whether or not they knew everything was fine in Saskatchewan.

To the Commission’s credit they did allow people the time to express their concerns, even those that Mr. Binder said they could not consider. But, towards the end of day 2 he lost his cool in a manner that suggested a real lack of interest in hearing people out. When the commission was pushed by an intervener on their commitment to the consultation process Binder replied incredulously, how could that be? “We have been here for two bloody days!”

Towards the end of the two days several interveners noted that the questioning from the commissioners seemed very unbalanced. Those that supported the project were enthusiastically asked to explain things further while those that expressed opposition were asked if they had enough information, or why they would have concerns about uranium mining and not any other kind of mining. An elder who had been listening to the hearing on the radio told me that from the sound of the Commissioners, “I thought they were shareholders of the company,” not our “independent” public watchdog! (He might have been joking but his meaning was clear.)

Though presumably well-intentioned, commissioner Moyra McDill’s request to the community to have some “grandmothers” present was viewed as patronizing by many present – especially the two grandmothers that had already presented! One also has to wonder if McDill considered the barriers implicit in the CNSC’s requirement of making a written submission in English or French in order to get on the speakers list. In the end I’m glad she made the request as it prompted an eloquent presentation by and elder who spoke of the beauty of traditional Cree lifestyle and the concerns she had for the land.

When evidence was presented about the life-cycle carbon footprint of nuclear energy, commissioner André Harvey seemed genuinely shocked that the industry he is supposed to be watching over could have such a big impact on green house gas emissions. Had he not been presented with these facts in the past?

From the CNSC staff there was also a lack of admission to any problems with “modern” uranium mining in Canada. During my intervention, I suggested the categorical nature of these claims was troubling and pointed to examples of several environmental issues, noting that some were legacy issues, some were recent issues, and I acknowleged that improvements have been made over the years. The response from Executive Vice President of the CNSC Dr. Ramzi Jamal to my request for a more transparent discussion was an accusation of fear mongering!

Dr. Jamal also took issue with my reference to estimates of the amount of water that would come from the mine as being “back of the envelope”. A Strateco consultant then explained that one of the estimates was simply based on his knowledge with other mines. Maybe he didn’t write it down on the back of an envelope – but that fits my definition. CNSC staff explained that another, lower estimate was based on some actual site data though only from four bore-holes for a 2.4 km long ramp with no consideration of potential inflow from fault zones. Maybe that one’s not quite “back of the envelope” – but hardly a rigorous analysis for a fundamental parameter relating to the key environmental risk of the project.

Whenever she responded to questions about the safety and performance of the industry, I was surprised how staffer Patsy Thompson spoke in absolute terms, even when discussion potential risks. Rather than expressing things as having minimal or minor risks – there were no risks of negative impacts. So it was a real contrast when she was asked to address the “shocking” revelation about the green house gas emissions noted above. While speaking to the issue she said several times that on further investigation by CNSC staff the data and source of information presented “seemed” to be accurate. OK, maybe I’m starting to split hairs, but at the time it really struck me. Her qualified acceptance of the fact that nuclear energy is not carbon free and that maybe, just maybe we anti-nuclear folks have our facts straight still seems indicative of much of what happened over those two days.