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Two nuclear scientists argue the internal review, conducted by a CNSC employee, is biased and downplays the importance of probabilistic safety assessments.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

An internal review by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission dismisses allegations that important information was withheld during the licensing of nuclear plants but two nuclear scientists say the review is "less than impartial" and a "sham" that should give Canadians no comfort.

In June, CNSC president Michael Binder received an anonymous letter, purported to have been written by employees at the nuclear regulator, that pointed to five separate cases in which the commission's staff sat on relevant information that might have called the safety of a nuclear plant into question.

Peter Elder, a strategic adviser within the CNSC's regulatory operations branch, who says he was able to maintain a neutral position because he did not work on the safety of nuclear power plants between 2008 and 2015, conducted a review that concluded late last week that none of the five cases point to any safety issues.

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Most of the allegations in the anonymous letter relate to inadequate "probabilistic safety assessments" (PSAs), which forecast what could go wrong in a reactor, the probability of those situations occurring and the potential consequence.

"In most cases, the anonymous letter overstates the importance of the PSA to the overall safety case," Mr. Elder wrote. PSAs, he wrote, are not meant to be used without other types of safety analyses, or to set operational safety limits, and care should be used when regulatory conclusions are drawn from their results.

"There was also no evidence to support the author's opinion that 'CNSC commissioners do not receive sufficient information to make balanced judgments,'" Mr. Elder wrote.

He recommended that the CNSC make a better effort to clarify the role of PSAs in the regulation of nuclear generating stations, that the "depth and scope" of the technical reviews performed to support licensing be clearly documented, and that management should reinforce with staff all of the processes that are available for raising issues of this nature.

But two nuclear experts have written subsequent letters to Mr. Binder asking him to discard Mr. Elder's review and to allow an arm's-length inquiry into the allegations of the anonymous whistle-blowers.

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Frank Greening, a nuclear chemist who is a former senior research scientist at Ontario Hydro, the predecessor of Ontario Power Generation, wrote that Mr. Elder's claim to have conducted an independent investigation was "quite extraordinary and ridiculous."

Mr. Elder "cannot possibly be independent because he is an employee of the CNSC," wrote Dr. Greening. He asked Mr. Binder to "reject Mr. Elder's less than impartial review."

In a telephone interview, Dr. Greening said PSAs have, for many years "been taken very very seriously and formed the backbone of a licence renewal. And now the CNSC turns around and says well actually, they're really not that important. That's absurd.

"If I was one of those whistle-blowers, I would be very very distressed at this stage of the game."

In a second letter, Sunil Nijhawan, a nuclear safety engineer with more than 35 years in the industry, wrote that Mr. Elder's conclusions display an ignorance of basic safety principles and the legislated role of the CNSC.

"After a lifetime of working in PSAs I am now asking why so many of us toiled for years and why the industry was forced to spend well over $50-million on PSAs so far?" Dr. Nijhawan wrote. "Why are many in the rest of the world doing brilliant peer-reviewed PSAs and using the findings to not only improve operations, reduce risk and also come up with improved designs?"

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Mr. Elder's "sham" review only reinforces that view held by international nuclear professionals that there is an "incestuous" relationship between the CNSC and the utilities, Dr. Nijhawan wrote.

CNSC officials said in an e-mail on Tuesday that Mr. Elder's review would be discussed at a commission meeting next week and they could make no further comment.

Tom Mulcair, the Leader of the federal New Democrats, wrote to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr after the anonymous letter became public to say he found the allegations alarming and warning that they must not be ignored.

Mr. Carr, whose department is responsible for the CNSC, wrote back to say that stakeholders have voiced concerns about the CNSC's independence and with previous political interference. As such, Mr. Carr wrote, "it would not be appropriate to intervene as Natural Resources Minister at this time."

But Mr. Mulcair told The Globe and Mail that is not good enough.

"The number one job of government is to protect the public and there is nothing more potentially dangerous to the public than nuclear energy. So that's why this has to be taken extraordinarily seriously," said Mr. Mulcair. Mr. Carr "cannot content himself with a whitewash internal review which has not got the slightest credibility."

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Editor's note. An earlier version of this story implied Peter Elder worked on the safety of nuclear power plants between 2008 and 2015. In fact he did not. This is the corrected version of the story.

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