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CNSC head to meet with officials to tackle allegations in anonymous letter

Michael Binder, CEO, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, at Commons natural resources committee

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Natural Resources officials will meet with the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to discuss allegations that information was withheld from commissioners as they made critical decisions about the licensing of the country's nuclear plants.

An anonymous letter, purportedly written by specialists at the nuclear regulator, was sent five weeks ago to CNSC president Michael Binder. It points to five separate cases in which the commission's staff sat on relevant information about risk or non-compliance that might have called the safety of a nuclear plant into question.

"The minister expects the culture at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to be safety-focused and open to employees' concerns and views on opportunities for improvement," Laurel Monroe, a spokeswoman for Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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"The minister's office will be meeting with Michael Binder in the near future and this will be part of the discussion," she said.

The CNSC would say only that it is undertaking an analysis of the concerns raised in the letter, "and as such has nothing further to add at this time."

Ms. Monroe said it is up to the CNSC, as an independent agency that maintains an "arm's-length" relationship with the government, to conduct that analysis and form a response. But, she said, Mr. Carr expects the commission to keep him informed.

The anonymous letter writers say nuclear hazards have been underestimated, plant operators have been permitted to skip requirements of the licensing regime, and assessments outlining what could happen in the event of a major nuclear disaster – such as the one that occurred in Fukushima, Japan in 2011 – have been withheld from the commissioners and the public.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair wrote to Mr. Carr on Tuesday, after the contents of the letter were reported in The Globe and Mail, to say he considered the allegations alarming.

"Withholding important information about risks to nuclear plants could put the Canadian public and our environment at risk. These allegations must not be ignored," he wrote.

"Ever since the previous government inappropriately fired Linda Keen, the former president of the CNSC, in an attempt to silence her, Canadians have been concerned that scientists and specialists are not free to give their expert analysis," Mr. Mulcair wrote. "This whistle-blower letter suggests that these sentiments remain."

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The NDP Leader pointed to a letter written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early March by representatives of 14 environmental groups that asked the Liberal government for a public review and modernization of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. That letter called the impartiality of the regulator into question, and raised concerns about transparency and reduced public participation in the CNSC's decision-making.

Mr. Carr responded in June to the environmentalists' letter by saying it is up to the commission to review its own regulatory framework.

Mark Mattson, president of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper group, was one of the signatories to the March letter to Mr. Trudeau. He said on Tuesday that he is not surprised by the contents of the anonymous letter written to Mr. Binder.

"Since Linda Keen was fired for ruling against an industry application on safety grounds, the CNSC has become an overzealous cheerleader of the industry with no room for dissent or criticism," Mr. Mattson said. "Worse, the CNSC has worked to eliminate all other forms of government oversight and control."

Among other allegations, the writers of the anonymous letter to Mr. Binder say an evaluation of the effects of a Fukushima-scale nuclear disaster in Canada has never been released to the commissioners or the public.

In a 2014 e-mail obtained by the environmental group Greenpeace under access to information laws, François Rinfret, a director at the regulator, said a scenario for a Fukushima-size disaster would "become the focal point of a licence renewal and, despite brilliant attempts to caution readers … would be used malevolently at a public hearing" by people concerned about nuclear energy.

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