Nuclear safety regulator must better track inspections: audit

Auditors said the nuclear regulator could not show them that it had an adequate process in place to carry out inspections

OTTAWA — The federal nuclear safety watchdog needs to get better at managing its inspection of nuclear power plants, says the commissioner of environment and sustainable development.

“To assure Canadians about the safety of nuclear power plants, the (regulator) must be able to show that it carries out the appropriate number and types of site inspections and that it follows its own procedures when doing so,” Commissioner Julie Gelfand wrote in her fall report, which was tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) was one of five areas of scrutiny covered by the fall audit, which also criticized Fisheries and Oceans Canada for failing to properly monitor the health of some fish stocks, or put plans in place to rebuild a dozen that are in critical condition.

The report noted the federal regulator uses site inspections at the four nuclear power plants in Canada — three in Ontario and one in New Brunswick — as a key tool to ensure they comply with regulatory requirements and license conditions.

But auditors found that due to insufficient or incomplete documentation, the regulator could not show auditors that it had an adequate, systemic process in place to plan for and carry out these inspections, or that they were informed by risk.

The report made clear the audit focused only how the CNSC manages its site inspections and not on the safety of nuclear power plants in this country.

The report noted, for example, that according to its own plans, the regulator was supposed to conduct a total of 255 inspections in fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15, but only completed 76 per cent of them.

The report said even this figure was difficult to calculate, due to inaccurate or incomplete planning records.

The reasons for not carrying out planned inspections were varied.

Sometimes, inspectors and technical specialists were unavailable, or the planned inspection requiring a reactor to be shut down did not match up with a scheduled outage.

The report suggested staffing levels might also be an issue.

The Department of Fisheries, meanwhile, came under scrutiny for either lacking or having out-of-date plans to manage 44 of the 154 major fish stocks — a grouping of fish based on genes and geography — it is responsible for managing.

“Current and reliable information is needed for the department to manage Canadian fisheries in a manner that supports conservation and sustainable use, and fosters economic prosperity for those who depend on fisheries for their livelihoods,” Gelfand wrote in the introduction to her report.

It has also not yet developed rebuilding plans for 12 of the 15 fish stocks that are considered to be in the “critical zone,” meaning they are suffering from serious harm, and have no firm timelines for doing so.

“Not having a rebuilding plan in place increases the risk that these depleted stocks may not recover,” said the report.

The report also found the department is missing important information required to manage these fish stocks in a sustainable way, as it is not conducting all the planned scientific surveys that help determine their abundance.

Mechanical issues with aging vessels at the Canadian Coast Guard led to a shortage of boats available to the do the work, something the report notes the auditor general already flagged nine years ago.

Meanwhile, some of the information provided by third-party fisheries observers who would otherwise be able to fill some of these gaps has been unreliable, insufficient or come too late to be of much use.

“If this information is not available when needed, or if its quality is questionable, this increases the uncertainty in the department’s assessment of stock health,” said the report.

“This, in turn, increases the risk that the catch levels it sets may be unsustainable—even if they are set conservatively,” it said.

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