Opposition politicians and environmentalists are questioning the priorities of the man responsible for nuclear safety in Canada after a string of incidents in which he publicly defended the industry and was dismissive of concerns about potential hazards – a stance that runs contrary to his mandate at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
The CNSC was established by the federal government to protect the health and safety of Canadians and to regulate the use, possession and storage of all nuclear substances in Canada. No part of its mission entails promotion of the country's reactors. But, in the more than eight years that Michael Binder has served as president of the CNSC, he has repeatedly extolled the merits of the nuclear industry and chastised critics who voiced concerns about potential hazards.
The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands behind Dr. Binder despite recently uncovered lapses in the CNSC's inspection regime and an anonymous letter that accused the CNSC of skipping important safety oversights. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said: "We think that the regulator has done and continues to do a good job."
But an audit released last week by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development found the CNSC was not inspecting reactors often or thoroughly enough. Julie Gelfand, the Environment Commissioner, said CNSC inspectors have been scrutinizing the country's nuclear facilities without the guides that list what criteria must be met, as required by the regulator.
"The fact that it's allowed and that that data is then used to tell us that everything is all good, tells me that there is something in the way that they are managing that is not precise enough, that is not systematic enough, that is not rigorous enough," she said.
Tom Mulcair, the Leader of the federal New Democrats, said Wednesday that the government is shirking its responsibilities by ignoring what is happening at the CNSC, an agency that reports to Parliament.
"Instead of being someone there to defend the public in an important area like nuclear safety, [Dr. Binder] acts like someone who is there to defend the industry that he is supposed to be regulating," Mr. Mulcair said in a telephone interview, "and he even goes on to attack those people who express concerns."
Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace Canada, said this week Dr. Binder has "shown a disturbing pattern of cheerleading for an industry he's supposed to keep in check. Trudeau needs to clean up the CNSC."
The release of the audit followed an anonymous letter sent last spring to Dr. Binder that was purportedly written by specialists inside CNSC. It pointed to five separate cases in which the commission's staff sat on relevant material about risk or non-compliance that might have called the safety of a plant into question.
Rather than conduct an independent investigation into the allegations, Dr. Binder asked one of his own staff to determine whether the letter had merit, a review that concluded the concerns were exaggerated. At a subsequent meeting of the CNSC, Dr. Binder questioned the letter's authenticity and suggested its contents were a part of a "conspiracy theory."
Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, said this week she is "very concerned" about what is happening at the CNSC and the fact that no one was called in from outside the regulator to look at the concerns of the letter writers. "People to tend to sit upright," she said, "when you tell them about a nuclear reactor that is not getting properly inspected."
Dr. Binder refused an interview request this week. But Aurèle Gervais, a CNSC spokesman, said allegations that Dr. Binder is too close to the industry "have been raised by serial intervenors many times in the past and dealt with publicly. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission stands by its safety record."
A career civil servant with a PhD in physics, Dr. Binder was appointed by the previous Conservative government in 2008 when his predecessor, Linda Keen, refused to back down on safety standards. One of his first acts was to reinstate a fast-track process for approving reactors – and there have been many times since then when he has been a promoter of the industry.
- In September, 2009, Dr. Binder attended one of several secret meetings of the Bruce County Council to discuss preparations for the upcoming approval hearings of a low and intermediate-level deep geologic repository (L&IL DGR) for nuclear waste that is being proposed for Kincardine, Ont., on the shores of Lake Huron. Dr. Binder, who heads one of the bodies that had to approve the project, is recorded in notes taken by Ontario Power Generation as having “said he hoped their next meeting with him would be at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the L&IL DGR.”
- In 2009, when the environmental group Sierra Club Canada issued a warning against what it said were dangerous levels of radioactive tritium in drinking water, the CNSC issued a statement assuring the public that tritium releases from the nuclear power industry posed no risk to health. It went on to lambaste the Sierra Club for choosing “to ignore the important benefits of nuclear technology.”
- In March, 2011, at a Commons committee, Dr. Binder took issue with critics who opposed shipping radioactive steam generators through the Great Lakes saying “this is not about safety – this is anti-nuclear.” He went on to say a number of environmental activists had made a career of “scaring the hell out of people with doomsday sentiments” and that he was fed up with the misinformation they were circulating.
- In 2013, Ontario Provincial Police officers showed up at the doors of people who opposed a proposed nuclear waste dump on the shores of Lake Huron asking if they planned any demonstrations at a hearing for an environmental assessment of the project. A spokesman for Ontario Power Generation said the OPP’s “engagement” came at the request of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and local municipalities.
- In 2015, Dr. Binder defended uranium mining in Quebec after Quebec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement said it would be premature to develop the industry in that province. In a letter to Quebec Environment Minister David Heurtel, he said it “is very troubling to have the [provincial agency] present your government with conclusions and recommendations that lack scientific basis and rigour.”
- In January, 2015, the CNSC sent out a mass e-mail to point out that international academics were asking environmental groups to sign a letter in support of nuclear energy for its role in combatting climate change. Environmental groups called it “as an egregious indication of bias on the part of the regulator in favour of nuclear energy production and its expansion, rather than acting as a neutral objective safety regulator.”