The federal agency charged with ensuring the safety of Canada's nuclear power plants is unable to prove that it is inspecting those facilities often or thoroughly enough or that it has the number of staff required to do the job, says a new report by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
The audit released by the commissioner, Julie Gelfand, on Tuesday as part of her fall report calls into question whether the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), which is often accused by environmentalists of being too close to the industry it was established to monitor, is providing proper oversight of the country's nuclear reactors.
The auditors could find no proof that the CNSC has determined how many inspections are needed to ensure that nuclear power plant operators are complying with their licensing and regulatory requirements. Nor, says the audit, could the regulator demonstrate that it takes risks into account when making decisions about which inspections it would and would not conduct.
Related: CNSC review dismissing nuclear-safety concerns called a 'sham' ROB magazine: Inside the race for Canada's nuclear waste: 11 towns vie to host deep burial site "I think it's pretty serious," Julie Gelfand, the environment commissioner, told a news conference. "Given that the nuclear industry is a precision industry, it's pretty serious if something goes wrong."
Ms. Gelfand said the audit does not inspire confidence in the safety of the nuclear system, or provide assurances that important things are not being missed.
The audit found that 75 per cent of inspections carried out by the CNSC were done by an inspector who was not following an approved guide.
"It's a bit like an airline pilot who doesn't go through his check list before taking off," said the commissioner. "That means that the commission can't tell us, and show us, that they are covering in their site inspections all of their requirements."
The audit follows on the heels of an anonymous letter sent earlier this year to CNSC president Michael Binder, purportedly written by technologists inside the regulator, that 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.
Dr. Binder, who was appointed by the previous Conservative government after it fired former president Linda Keen when she balked at skirting safety rules, subsequently questioned whether that letter was part of a "conspiracy theory" concocted by outsiders.
But the CNSC management agreed with all of the recommendations made by the environment commissioner to correct the deficiencies that her audit team uncovered in the regulator's inspection regime.
Among other things, the audit says the CNSC conducted only about 48 per cent of the inspections of nuclear plants in 2013-14 and 2014-15 that should have been scheduled under the regulator's five-year plan.
"The decisions about which inspections the CNSC would and would not carry out from the five-year plan were based on professional judgment and the rationales for those decisions – such as on how risks were taken into account – were not documented," says the audit.
In some cases, the inspections were not done because inspectors and technical specialists were not available. The audit says the CNSC could not show that it had assigned an appropriate number of staff to deal with the risks.
In fact, the regulator's senior managers told the auditors that they believed there were enough inspectors to do the work and that more were being assigned as issues arose. But, wrote the auditors, "we were told by site inspectors and site supervisors at every nuclear power plant that there were either not enough inspectors at their sites, or not enough at the levels needed."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday to explain why he continues to support Mr. Binder in the role of CNSC president after the letter of last summer and the problems that were uncovered by the auditor.
Mr. Trudeau did not respond directly to the question but said the Liberal government takes the question of nuclear safety seriously and will work to ensure that Canada maintains the highest standards.
After the daily Question Period in the House of Commons, Kim Rudd, the parliamentary secretary to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, said the government does have confidence in the CNSC and said she understands that the regulator is already beginning to address the auditor's recommendations.
Japanese officials have admitted that there were inadequate inspections of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Japan in the years leading up to the disaster of 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami disabled three reactors, causing their cores to melt down and creating the largest nuclear disasters since Chernobyl.
In response to the audit, the CNSC says it is updating its five-year plan and will review both its staffing allocation and the frequency and type of inspections that are needed to ensure compliance.
But Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace Canada, said the audit proves that "Canada's so-called nuclear watchdog is all bark and no bite. The CNSC needs to actually oversee nuclear safety instead of just reassuring Canadians nuclear power is safe."