Newly released government documents suggest Ottawa wants nuclear operators to be on the hook for more than $650-million in damages in case of an accident.
But Greenpeace Canada says the documents also suggest Ottawa is talking only to the nuclear industry as it redefines its nuclear liability regime.
"We're concerned that the Harper government's cozy relationship with industry is putting the interests of the nuclear lobby above the safety of Canadians," said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a nuclear analyst with Greenpeace Canada.
Using access to information laws, Greenpeace obtained a consultation paper that Natural Resources Canada sent out to stakeholders in May, 2011 – a couple of months after the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan – outlining why Canada needs to modernize its nuclear civil liabilities rules.
The paper says Canada's current liability of $75-million is hopelessly out of date, but also suggests that even more recent proposals to set the cap at $650-million are now looking too low.
"Recent developments may warrant that the amount of $650-million be re-examined," the paper states, pointing to expenses involved in the Fukushima accident and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as moves by other countries to significantly increase operator liability.
The Conservatives have put forward bills in the past proposing that the $75-million cap be raised to $650-million to better reflect international norms. But the bills were never passed, and now the norms have shifted, the paper says.
"Consideration must be given as to the appropriateness of retaining the $650-million operator liability limit, or moving to a higher limit or unlimited liability," the paper states, adding that the nuclear insurance pool in Canada is already big enough to cover up to $1-billion in operator liabilities.
Greenpeace is urging Canada to move to unlimited liability, arguing that taxpayers should not have to foot any of the bill for industrial activity. But that option is given short shrift in the consultation document. In a footnote, Natural Resources Canada says that in practice, liability would be limited to an operator's assets.
"Even if an operator has significant assets, allowing a power utility to become insolvent may not be in a country's best interests," the paper states, pointing to the Japanese government's need to inject public money into the Fukushima utility so that it wouldn't collapse due to compensation claims.
Greenpeace is also unsettled by the fact that the issues raised by the paper only look at an operator's liability in case of an accident, but not the suppliers whose products may be at the source of an accident.
The debate comes as regulators from around the world gather in Ottawa to hash out ways to prevent accidents such as Fukushima from happening again. They hope to find better ways to prevent or minimize damage from such accidents, better manage radioactive waste, strengthen international co-operation, and enhance safety.
But at the same time, the fallout from the Fukushima disaster continues.
The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has been plagued with recent glitches. A blackout last month, caused by a rat that short-circuited a switchboard, left the plant's fuel storage pools without cooling for more than a day. Last Friday another cooling failure occurred, and hours later the operator reported a massive leak of contaminated water from underground tanks.
Greenpeace says costs of the Fukushima disaster may amount to $200-billion – far higher than anything contemplated by Canadian proposals floated to date.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver did not immediately comment on the Greenpeace request for a full-fledged public review of the issue.
But he did announce that Canada's arrangements to sell Canadian nuclear materials, equipment and technology to India have been finalized – opening the door for a surge in Canadian exports.
Canada cut off nuclear trade with India in 1976 after India used Canadian technology to test a nuclear bomb. Under the new arrangement, the International Atomic Energy Agency will make sure that Canada's nuclear exports to India are only used for peaceful activities.
As for liability, if there is an accident involving Canadian supplies in India, Canadian companies will be on the hook – unlike here in Canada, said Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
Oliver has said publicly that he plans to modernize the liability regime for both nuclear accidents and oil spills. Changes are expected to be revealed in the coming months.