The Ontario government's Emergency Management Office (EMO) has continued the practice of borrowing senior employees from the province’s largest electricity producer, despite a warning from the auditor general and concerns around safety and conflict of interest from advocacy groups.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said in her annual report last December that the province's nuclear emergency management program "requires EMO to have its own staff with specific technical knowledge in order to assess risks and provide the Province with independent and objective advice."
Lysyk chided the government for leaving the senior scientist position vacant between July 2016 and April 2017. To fill the void, the EMO had turned to a network of retired nuclear power company staff and a nuclear consulting group. "In 2015, a staff member from a nuclear power company worked at EMO while being paid directly by the nuclear power company. This type of arrangement could pose a risk to EMO’s objectivity," Lysyk wrote.
The ministry responded last year that it "agrees with the Auditor General’s recommendation" of independent nuclear expertise and "recognizes the need for independence and clarity in its arrangements with the nuclear power companies," noting it had staffed the senior scientist position.
However, Ontario Power Generation's director of emergency management is apparently still on secondment to the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management. Jim Coles' LinkedIn profile states that, starting in July 2017, he was "On loan from OPG to support development of the new Provincial Nuclear Emergency Plan."
An internal report by a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission staffer and obtained by QP Briefing that discusses a February meeting of the province's Nuclear Emergency Management Coordination Committee notes that Coles "chaired and facilitated the discussion."
OPG, which operates the Pickering and Darlington nuclear plants, compensates the province and municipalities for costs associated with mitigating the risk of a nuclear emergency. OPG has a financial interest in curbing costs and public concern, potentially posing a conflict of interest if the electricity generator’s senior staff have a guiding hand in emergency planning and jeopardizing the safety of GTA residents, green groups say.
Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said secondments can present an "organizational loyalty conflict."
"A secondment implies that they're there for a while and then they're going back to their home organization, and their supervisors and bosses in the home organization will be aware of what they contributed in the seconded organization," McClenaghan said.
"Even though presumably they're well informed about the issue and presumably that's why they're being seconded, the concern I would have is whether the decisions and the recommendations they're making in the Community Safety ministry are made partly with the perspective of how that will affect OPG financially or organizationally," she said.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and various intervenors recommended to the province during its update of Ontario's nuclear emergency plan last year that it expand the safety zone surrounding the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station (PNGS), east of Toronto. The federal regulator and advocacy groups suggested wider-spread distribution of anti-radiation pills, more evacuation shelters, more extensive alert systems and heightened public awareness efforts.
An internal OPG memo obtained by QP Briefing on relicensing of the nuclear station highlights the "tight schedule" for the government to revamp its Provincial Nuclear Emergency Response Plan (PNERP). "There is a risk that, if the PNERP is not updated and approved in time by the current Cabinet, it will be significantly delayed beyond the 2018 PNGS licence expiry date and will raise questions about the robustness of off‐site emergency preparedness around Pickering. These issues could threaten Pickering relicensing and result in ... a shorter licence term," the memo from May 2017 states.
Another OPG memo points out that an updated emergency plan could have optics and cost implications for operating the station to 2024.
"Changes to the emergency plan requirements may entail expanding the evacuation zone and potassium iodide pill distribution. This may impact the public’s perception of nuclear and could affect Pickering’s longer term license application," the memo reads.
The same document notes that to mitigate these risks, OPG was "engaged at senior levels to provide appropriate support and consultation."
"Strengthening emergency management basically means expanding where emergency measures are put in place — a wider geography," said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, an energy analyst with Greenpeace. "And that means informing more Torontonians that there's a risk of a nuclear accident. And that's a reputational risk for the company," he said.
"OPG creates this risk, and they have a financial and a reputational interest in minimizing off-site nuclear emergency response."
Stensil called Coles' secondment to the EMO from OPG "outrageous" and "akin to letting Kinder Morgan determine pipeline emergency response."
"The province let the fox prepare the hen house protection plan," he said.
"That's an interesting point," Community Safety Minister Michael Tibollo told QP Briefing when asked about the conflict-of-interest issue this week. "Give me a chance to look at it and I'll get back to you."
OPG was not able to respond to questions by deadline.
The Community Safety ministry, which overseas the EMO, did not respond to questions Friday.
The nuclear safety commission held hearings last month on whether to extend the Pickering plant past its design life to 2024.
A study released in April by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis said the move would add $12.3 billion to Ontario’s GDP and support 7,600 jobs a year at the plant and with suppliers.
Despite the history of secondments, Canada’s nuclear safety watchdog may be gearing up to ensure schools within 50 kilometres of the Pickering reactors have ready access to anti-radiation pills.
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission staff are assembling a working group that includes OPG, Health Ministry bureaucrats and the EMO to distribute the potassium iodide pills, called KI pills. The tablets protect the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation in the event of a nuclear emergency, and should be ingested within four hours of a radiation plume to be effective, according to Health Canada.
The move comes in the wake of week-long hearings last month where teachers, administrators and green groups demanded the precautionary measure. It also arrives three years after federal regulatory updates prompted the Bruce nuclear station to stock the tablets at distribution pickup points within a 50-kilometre zone, a response the province and OPG did not follow suit on.
Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, said the "potential conflict of interest" with the overlap between OPG and the EMO is "more profound" than financial concerns. "Nuclear power depends on upon public support, and they have always tried to downplay the nuclear safety questions," he said of OPG.
Janet McNeill, co-ordinator of Durham Nuclear Awareness, said in an email she is concerned about the "overly close relationship" between "the industry and the provincial agency responsible for nuclear emergency planning."