Scientists working for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission have asked their union to negotiate a policy on scientific integrity that would allow them to express their views about nuclear-safety issues without fear of reprisals from management.
The unionized professional employees at the nuclear regulator and two nuclear research facilities – Chalk River in Ontario and Whiteshell in Manitoba – have been negotiating a new contract for the past three years, a process that was significantly delayed as a result of last year's federal election.
The labour talks have continued as the two reactors are gradually being decommissioned.
Sources familiar with the bargaining say the CNSC workers decided that, with all of the changes that will be occurring at the two facilities, this is the time they should negotiate for the right to point out potential problems without fear of embarrassing their managers or being told to keep problems under wraps.
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union that represents them, says the aim is to secure scientific integrity in the workplace. Allowing more freedom for government scientists to speak to the public and the media has been a central theme of the PIPSC's negotiations with many government departments.
"When our members fight for scientific integrity to be in the collective agreement, they're not just fighting for their own right as regulatory scientists, they're also fighting for the rights of every Canadian to live in safety," Debi Daviau, president of PIPSC.
"The situation with specialists at the nuclear regulator is a clear case of that," she said. "After a decade of disregard for the advice of public service professionals, we want to see real change reflected in our collective agreements."
The effort to free the CNSC's scientific staff to voice concerns comes as the regulator investigates allegations contained in an anonymous letter, purportedly written by employees at the nuclear regulator, that says information was withheld from commissioners while they were making critical decisions about the licensing of this country's nuclear plants.
The letter, which was sent several weeks ago to CNSC president Michael Binder, points 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.
Environmental groups have complained for many years that the CNSC acts more as a booster for nuclear energy than as a watchdog for public safety.
In response to the union's demands, the CNSC created a working group, composed largely of managers, to develop ways to resolve scientific or regulatory disagreements, to establish the rules for publishing research and to discuss the scope of a potential policy on scientific integrity.
A document, obtained under Access to Information by the environmental group Greenpeace, says one of the aims of that working group is to "provide mechanisms for staff to express dissenting views without fear of reprisal in a respectful environment."
That document says the CNSC would benefit from having a science policy and recommends the creation of a science adviser position to ensure compliance with that policy.
The CNSC said in an e-mail that its staff have always had scientific freedom to publish their research, that healthy debate is encouraged, that a formal process for resolving differences of professional opinion already exists and that whistle blowers can raise concerns anonymously.
But the union says CNSC scientists are extremely fearful of the repercussions they might face for speaking out. Although management is open to creating its own internal policy around scientific integrity, the union says it wants to the policy written into the collective agreement to ensure that its members are protected.