Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Fire violations fuel concern over Ontario nuclear facilities

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is jeopardizing the safety of the people of Port Hope, Ontario, because it is not enforcing deadlines it gave two local nuclear facilities to secure adequate protection against fires, say two concerned groups.

Local citizen’s group Families Against Radiation Exposure and environmental watchdog Sierra Legal Defence Fund are demanding that the CNSC immediately act to ensure the facilities are brought into compliance with federal and provincial fire and safety standards.

The Port Hope facilities operated by Cameco Corporation and Zircatec Precision Industries handle many hazardous materials, including hydrofluoric acid and enriched uranium, but Port Hope’s fire chief warned them 16 months ago that his volunteer force was not equipped to fight fires involving radioactive or hazardous materials. Neither company has firefighters trained to handle such fires.

The CNSC Commissioners called the lack of fire protection “unacceptable” in May 2005 and ordered staff to “proceed forthwith” to address all concerns. The companies were given a firm deadline for full compliance of July 30, 2005. They were warned they would face regulatory action if they did not do so, up to and including suspension of their licenses. However, there has been little action to date and the CNSC will be meeting today, February 16th, to consider a staff recommendation that the companies be given more time.

“It is truly outrageous that the CNSC has failed to force these companies to comply with its orders,” said Sierra Legal lawyer Christine Elwell. “And if Canada’s nuclear regulator cannot enforce something as basic as the fire code, then what else is slipping through the cracks?”

FARE has written each of the Commissioners urging that they reject the staff recommendation and enforce their own order “immediately.” FARE president John Miller says if it does not do this, the CNSC is guilty of “reckless disregard of the health and safety of a community that must live in the shadow of two polluting nuclear industries that are allowed to operate without a buffer zone.”

When it appeared before the CNSC last February at the mid-term license review of Cameco and Zircatec, FARE documented a long history of the CNSC staff’s inability to enforce deadlines for regulatory compliance. “They are saying that it is acceptable for our community to be defenceless if a major fire broke out at either facility,” Miller said. “It is quite clear to us that the CNSC staff is not prepared to move beyond platitudes and idle threats of regulatory action.”

He said there is no reason to believe the staff’s assurances that “further actions” will be completed by mid-2006, since the outstanding issues are serious ones, including the possible conversion of Port Hope’s volunteer force into a full-time outfit at a cost of at least $2 million a year. Port Hope Fire Chief Frank Haylow says that is the only way to deal with the situation, but the community does not have the money to do that.

FARE has also written to Linda Keen, president and CEO of the CNSC, protesting the decision to hear this very important matter at a meeting, rather than a hearing, thus depriving members of the public of the opportunity to intervene in a matter that affects their health and well being so directly.

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