The president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has openly questioned whether an anonymous letter purportedly written by specialists at the nuclear regulator alleging malfeasance is part of "conspiracy theory" from outsiders, but he nonetheless encouraged concerned employees to speak up.
Michael Binder, the president and chief executive officer at the commission, was addressing allegations made in a letter sent to him in June that claimed in five separate cases the commission's staff withheld information from commissioners that might have called the safety of a plant into question.
The letter led to an internal review from Peter Elder, a strategic adviser with the commission's regulatory branch who says he was able to maintain a neutral position because he has not been involved in regulating power plants since 2008. His review ultimately dismissed the allegations as unfounded.
But two nuclear experts subsequently wrote 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, calling the report "less than impartial" and a "sham" because it came from an employee.
Addressing the controversy for the first time at a public meeting on Wednesday evening, Mr. Binder said Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission management "does not muzzle our staff" and encourages them to publish, post and present their work in the "appropriate literature."
He pointed to Mr. Elder's review as proof the letter may have been written by outsiders.
"The question is, was this letter written by our staff? Because the conclusion of Peter [Elder] is completely diametrically opposed to anything in this particular letter," Mr. Binder said.
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.
Mr. Elder's review found the anonymous letter "overstates the importance of the PSA to the overall safety case" and that PSAs are meant to be used in conjunction with other types of safety analyses.
The letter writers, who say they are remaining anonymous because they are not confident of whistle-blower protection, asked Mr. Binder to assign an independent expert to review the accuracy of their claims. They make eight other recommendations for improving the licensing regime, many of them relating to specific issues at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station on Lake Ontario, just east of Toronto, and at the Bruce plant on Lake Huron.
Yolande Akl, a PSA director at the commission, told the hearing she didn't believe the letter came from one of her specialists.
"It cannot come from the PSA professionals because they know that the PSA, as much as it's a very powerful tool, it has also its limitations, and who knows best about the limitations are the PSA specialists," she said.
"So if you're correct, we are into a conspiracy theory here," Mr. Binder replied.
Commissioner Rumina Velshi asked officials on Wednesday how often an employee had come to the commission's office of audit and ethics with concerns and wished to remain anonymous.
Marc Leblanc, who is responsible for internal conflict management, said no whistle-blowers have come through the system in four years. "Formally, it's zero, but I know there's a number of people that will meet our ethics specialists to get advice in how to proceed," he said.
A spokesman later clarified that the commission administers the internal disclosure program, and has received no formal requests and is not aware of any staff complaints sent to the public sector integrity commissioner.
Ms. Velshi later told the hearing, "It doesn't matter who wrote that letter. For a while, I was getting very uncomfortable with how the conversation [about who the letter writers were] was going there."
Mr. Elder's review did make three recommendations: clarifying expectations for PSAs, making technical reviews more "systematic" and improving the ways in which staff can anonymously complain.
"If the authors were CNSC staff they were clearly not familiar with the tools, since those tools include ones under which they could have had their identity protected if they were concerned about reprisal," Mr. Elder told the hearing.
"Therefore, I recommend that there should be ongoing communication to staff about these processes and they should be encouraged to use them."
Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace Canada who was also copied on the letter, said the commissioners need to ensure the root causes of the letter are properly investigated and addressed.
"Up and beyond the narrow scope of Mr. Elder's review, the whistle-blower letter indicates there's a problem with safety culture at the commission," he wrote in prepared remarks, which he was not given the opportunity to deliver at the meeting.
Mr. Stensil added that the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 happened because staff did not acknowledge or act on information about a tsunami risk at the station – and urged the commission to conduct an institutional review to ensure the same thing does not happen in Canada.
With a report from Gloria Galloway