Monthly Archives: November 2013

Nuclear Liability

Why Should Nuclear Operators Have their Liability Limited?

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Under a proposed legal change, Canada’s nuclear plant operators would have their potential liability capped at $1 billion (up from the current $75 million) for nuclear-related damage.  But why have a limit at all?  Why not make them liable for any amount of loss?  Isn’t a limit of $1 billion too soft on those who screw up?

For an answer, let’s look at why liability is ever limited.

Schuldturm debtor prison
Schuldturm debtor’s prison, Nurnberg, Germany (source: Keichwa/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

At one time, if you didn’t pay your debts, then you, your family and your servants could all be enslaved.  Debtors’ prisons existed until the nineteenth century.  Unmanageable debt was a moral failing and a form of criminality.

Even so, many saw that these “solutions” were much too hard on the spouses, children and customers who depended on the debtor’s continued freedom to work, act and spend.

Personal insolvency (or bankruptcy) laws weren’t devised to aid mismanagement or dishonesty.  They exist to let people like you and me continue to live and function if our debts get out of control.  This is in everyone’s interest – even our creditors’, at least in the long run and most of the time.  A debtor who keeps working, restructures his affairs, and gets back on his feet is better for society than one who’s turned into a slave or a prisoner.

Different but related principles are behind the limited liability corporation – the enabling institution of modern economies.  Controlling the extent of liability is the secret to unlocking corporations’ ability to raise capital from stockholders like you and me.  With that capital, they can do the things corporations do.  Like inventing things, buying machinery and creating jobs.

Corporate insolvency and bailouts have the same aim.  An organization that keeps operating and paying employees is, in many cases, far better for society as a whole than one that’s broken up and liquidated.  Good insolvency regimes allow the financially challenged to make whatever payments they can in a prompt, predictable and orderly way, rather than in chaos.

This is far from saying that getting into unmanageable debt and failing to repay it is okay.  It’s not.  But the law can be structured so that borrowers are motivated to be careful and make due efforts to avoid this situation.  As most do.

Canada’s Nuclear Liability Act (NLA) is in the same legal family as incorporation and insolvency laws.  It anticipates difficult situations and sets up sensible rules in advance, so the players can do their jobs in the heat of crisis with less uncertainty and under fewer pressures.

Changes being proposed to the NLA would actually increase the liability limit by an order of magnitude, giving companies more responsibility, not less.  Government and companies support these changes because they would make Canada a party to the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC).  The CSC creates an international supplementary fund that can pay compensation beyond what national laws provide.

Like a good insolvency law, the CSC sets up consistent, clear rules for payment, and makes sure that payment will be prompt and orderly.  Like a limited-liability incorporation law, the CSC makes it more practical for companies to raise capital, invest, and create opportunity.

Canada has a great record in nuclear safety.  Our industry and regulators work together every day to make sure we don’t have incidents.  The changes to the NLA are Canada’s steps to an up-to-date legal and financial system that can handle one if ever we do.


What did Fukushima Mean for Canadians?

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

The other day I had a call from a company wanting to import used machines from Japan to Alberta. The machines had been operating 500 km away from Fukushima Daiichi – well on the other side of Tokyo from the disabled nuclear plant.

The company were concerned that their new (old) hardware might be so contaminated with radiation that it won’t be admitted to Canada.

I told them even the resident evacuation zone near Fukushima was only 20 to 30 km wide – and many now think that was a costly overreaction.

Chinook salmon moving upstream (Credit: Dan Cook, Wikimedia Commons)
Chinook salmon moving upstream (Credit: Dan Cook, Wikimedia Commons)

However overcautious my callers were, their fears were less far-fetched than saying Canadians might be harmed by (for example) trace radiation in ocean debris or in migrating salmon.

The trans-Pacific distances are so immense, the dilution so great, the source so comparatively modest, our intakes so diversified, as to make this virtually impossible.

Canadian residents, even West Coast shore-dwellers, are at greater risk from the radiation in sunlight than from Fukushima. Rather than wishing Ottawa would rad-test your salmon, put on a hat.

Debris-radiation dread in turn has much more fright value than our country’s nuclear generating plants. That’s a story that was really tough to make scary.

Darlington Nuclear Generating Station (Credit: Ontario Power Generation)
Darlington Nuclear Generating Station (Credit: Ontario Power Generation)

Canada’s power reactors caused no radiation harm in fifty years of operation, and are different from Daiichi in all major respects – different fuel, core axis, moderator, containment, and geological zone.

Not just that; but Canada’s response to Fukushima was world-leading.

After the 2011 tsunami, Canada’s nuclear regulators staffed a 24/7 emergency operations centre. They inspected all plants and other facilities, checking readiness of earthquake preparedness, firefighting capability, backup power, hydrogen management and fuel cooling bays. And they had operators review all the lessons they could from the Daiichi accident.

Meanwhile the regulators, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), created a task force to study how plants would deal with events more extreme than they’d considered before, and how their capabilities would stand up.

Not only did the CNSC task force determine that Canada’s nuclear plants are safe; one year after Fukushima, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the CNSC’s response was prompt, robust, comprehensive, and a good model for other regulatory bodies.

No, for Canadians, if there is a post-Fukushima story, it isn’t trans-Pacific radiation. And it’s sure not reactor safety.
Rather, the story – one it’s time we heard more about — is in the role Canadian people and organizations played in global efforts to make this industry better and safer.

wano-logoFor example, Tom Mitchell, CEO of Ontario Power Generation, chaired the World Association of Nuclear Operators’ (WANO’s) Post-Fukushima Commission. WANO is the foremost safety organization of the people who actually operate nuclear plants.

Under Tom Mitchell’s leadership, the Commission has driven WANO to:

  • Expand its activities in emergency preparedness and severe accident management
  • Develop a world-wide integrated event response strategy
  • Strengthen the peer review process for nuclear plants
  • Strengthen WANO’s own internal reviews.

Tom Mitchell is not the only Canadian showing leadership in the world’s nuclear industry. Tim Gitzel, CEO of Saskatoon-based Cameco, is Chair of the World Nuclear Association. Dr. John Barrett, now President of the Canadian Nuclear Association, was until recently Chair of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s chief nuclear watchdog.

The global response to Fukushima is part of the relentless drive to strengthen the world’s nuclear governance. This is another example of an area where Canada has demonstrated competence, punched above its weight, and helped the world get better and safer.

That’s not something to worry over. It’s something to feel proud of and good about.

Nuclear Safety Uncategorized

How can Nuclear Power be Safe?

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Imagine:  It’s 300,000 years ago.  You’re an ape-like human living in a small, semi-nomadic band.  Your group migrates among a few favourite campsites.  And for a few hundred generations, you’ve been learning to control fire.

Last night, your fire got away and scorched several hectares around camp.  Your group lost half its stock of animal skins, and some members got burned.

Among the tribe, moods vary.  Some say the whole fire idea was wrong.  “Inherently unsafe technology,” they grunt.   “Made the whole place useless for years.”   “Better off the old-fashioned way, huddling in our animal skins in the dark,” some mutter.  “Raw meat tasted better anyhow.”   “Uneconomic – all that time spent looking for firewood and blowing on hot coals.”

You have different ideas.  You build stone fire-rings (for containment).  You keep water handy (for shutdown) and bank coals (for quick restart).  You teach people how to handle and put out fire (safety training).  You rotate fuel so it burns fully, and you build the fire against an upright rock so more of the heat and light reflect toward you (efficiency).  You experiment with cooking (applications).

Ten thousand generations later, fire safety still isn’t perfect.  But over 10,000 generations of our species have had warmth, light, and better and safer food.  Six or eight of those generations have had abundant mechanical power.  Three or four generations have had mass transport and electricity, with the huge leaps in life quality they bring.  All from using and controlling fire.

Unfortunately, it took us most of those 10,000 generations to get really good at reducing the risks.  A major urban fire happened on average every two years in the 1800s.  New York and Toronto each had two devastating fires in the first half of that century.  This just doesn’t happen today.

Things like fire departments, hydrants, alarms, extinguishers, and appliance and building codes have done wonders since 1800 to make fire safer to use, without reducing its benefits.  Starting a couple of hundred years ago, we began institutionalizing and systematizing safety, and these are some of the results.

Fire marshals, insurance institutes, building inspectors, product regulators, hospitals, manufacturers and many other professionals collaborate to spot risks, reduce them, and make us safer.  Each fire is an opportunity to learn better how to prevent fires, and is treated that way.  As a result, fire frequency, damage, deaths and injury rates are driven ever downward – first in the most advanced regions, and elsewhere soon after.

Fire Death Rates per Million Population by Selected Countries
Fire Death Rates per Million Population by Selected Countries


Source:  “Fire death rate trends:  An international perspective,” Topical Fire Report Series, US Fire Administration

Nuclear energy is the new fire.  It can improve our lives as dramatically as fire did.  With near-zero carbon emissions, and fewer impacts on air, land and forest.  And more quickly.  Just two generations after the first controlled reaction, we had applied nuclear technology worldwide in energy and medicine.

Meanwhile, measured against the old fire, nuclear’s safety is phenomenal.  The few dozen direct fatalities from nuclear look like a pin-prick, whether you look at direct or indirect harm, compared to the damage that is still done by fire even after all our success in controlling it.

We learn quickly now.  Good collaborative work by many professionals does that work systematically and relentlessly.  While safety is not and will not be perfect – in fire, air travel, consumer products, nuclear or anywhere else – we are learning faster and getting better.

Nuclear Outreach

Check Out our New Ads!

Canadian Nuclear Association's ad campaign at Ottawa International Airport
Canadian Nuclear Association’s ad campaign at Ottawa International Airport

Next time you’re hustling through Ottawa International Airport, keep an eye out for our new ads! They’re running under the headline, “Serious About Climate Change? Get Serious About Nuclear.”

You’ll find the ads between gates 16 and 17 (Air Canada’s Rapidair gate) and outside the Porter Lounge.

The ads guide the viewer to information about nuclear’s clean-air benefits.

Nuclear Energy

Download “How does Nuclear Benefit Ontario” Infographic

Today’s Globe and Mail includes an infographic titled How does nuclear energy benefit Ontario? The image highlights nuclear as the best option for clean, reliable and affordable energy, as well as the number of jobs made possible by the refurbishment project.

Click on the image of the infographic to download your copy.




Climate Change: Time to Act

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

According to a poll published last week by Canada 2020 and the University of Montreal, 71% of Canadians think climate change should be a top priority of the federal government.

And 84% believe the federal government should take primary responsibility for addressing global warming.

On climate change, the discussions on “whether or not” and “why” are over.  Now the discussion is about how to respond, and how quickly.  That’s going to involve everyone.

While there is a useful ongoing dialog on climate going on this week in Warsaw, it’s plain to most of us that the disease is progressing much more quickly than the cure.

Few players will merely wait until national governments lead us.

Companies, junior levels of government, and other organizations of all stripes – community to industry to international — are stepping up.  This reflects a wider pattern of smaller players driving some of the most progressive and imaginative policy movements.

The UN Global Compact has just released guidelines to help companies engage transparently and accountably in climate policy:

This week at the Canadian Nuclear Association, we launched two important and complementary initiatives:

  • First meeting of our GHG Working Group.  The Working Group will spend coming months developing an industry position on GHGs.
  • Kickoff of a major independent study of the life-cycle emissions from power generation.  The study, by the engineering group Hatch, will compare lifespan emissions from nuclear, natural gas, and wind.

Our purpose is to contribute sound, well-thought-out ideas to federal and provincial dialogs on controlling GHGs.

In a related initiative, we are also beginning to consult CNA members and environmental experts about a sustainability code of practice.

Momentum is building, not just in Warsaw, but around the world.

Not in decades has the world’s population faced a common struggle like this one.  The threat is against all of us.  Organizations big and small are engaging actively, and with strong public support.