New life for nukes

Deal with Brit company likely to prolong our nuclear dependence

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Excuse me if I don’t celebrate along with the Harris Tories and the Power Workers’ Union over that deal with British Energy to run one of our rusting nuclear power plants.

Normally, Ontario’s union leaders can be counted on to raise a stink about privatization. But despite British Energy’s reputation for lean, mean operations, the power workers haven’t been squawking at all about the possibility of staff cuts, let alone about the safety concerns tied to possible downsizing.

Apparently, all it takes to quell the union is a 5-per-cent equity stake in the project and talk of creating more jobs by opening two additional mothballed reactors at the Bruce station northwest of Toronto.

“We’re quite happy with the arrangement,” says PWU staff officer Dave Shier, who adds that “(BE) seem to be a very forward-thinking company and the unions (in Britain) seem to be quite happy with them.”

Interesting, since the Canadian Union of Public Employees, PWU’s parent, opposes the privatization of public utilities.

At the moment, only anti-nuke activists like Greenpeace and the Campaign for Nuclear Phase-Out are raising the alarm about the prospect of a private company resurrecting a dying nuclear facility at a time when other countries are facing the music and starting the difficult task of shutting down their old reactors.

“Perhaps a kind thing that can be said about British Energy is that in the UK they’re not quite the worst,” says Greenpeace spokesperson Jo Dufay. “But we don’t think nuclear power is safe in any hands.”

Energy cult

Of course, you’d have to be pretty incompetent to do a worse job of running our nuke plants than the old Ontario Hydro. But by flirting with nuclear privatization, where large, for-profit multinationals are emerging as the new energy cult, are we going to be safer in the long run?

Frankly, I don’t feel safe at all.

British Energy talks the talk on safety. But it’s also committed to shareholders and hasn’t been shy in the past about keeping staff levels dangerously low to save money.

Last year, the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), Britain’s nuclear regulator, knocked British Energy’s safety reputation down a notch. A leaked NII audit revealed that the company had downsized and was relying on contract workers to the extent that expert staffing levels in safety support positions were unacceptably low.

The regulator also found that the remaining technical and support staff were working “significant amounts of overtime or unpaid excess hours to keep abreast of the workload.”

BE spokesperson Bob Fenton says 2,200 staff positions were cut through attrition and buyout packages, with some employees returning on contract.

The company accepted all of the regulator’s 103 recommendations “without reservation” and, says Fenton, BE has addressed the problems identified in the report.

The union here isn’t taking that as a warning of things to come. The PWU says the public utility has already cut staff levels.

“There have been a lot of cutbacks in preparation for deregulation,” says Shier.

Despite the public relations blow, British Energy believes it has the wherewithal to turn North America’s troubled and aging nuclear reactors into cash cows.

Formed in 1996 by taking two British public utilities private, BE adopted eight underachieving nuke stations on the isles. It then made them a going concern through so-called economies of scale and, in part, keeping staff levels down.

BE soon got the expansion itch, setting its sights on plants across the pond. It began scooping up unwanted nuclear reactors in the U.S. Northeast, including a unit at the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.

BE’s arrival in Ontario is being cautiously welcomed by critics of our problem-plagued public utility. Norm Rubin, the executive director of Energy Probe, argues that nothing alerts a regulator like privatization. “(The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) is going to know that there is a profit monger running nuclear generating stations,” Rubin says. “That really clarifies the role of the regulator.”

But the U.S. has had private nukes for decades now, and the regulator there certainly didn’t see Three Mile Island coming.

Anti-nuke activists in the U.S. aren’t convinced that BE has learned its lesson or that the Brits aren’t being welcomed in the U.S. because of their management style of cutting costs.

Safety concerns

“That’s clearly the expertise they have,” says Michael Marriote, executive director of the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).

Bill Jones, spokesperson for BE’s U.S. operations, doesn’t mince words on this point. The Americans were impressed with the way BE slimmed down operations in Britain. “Of course the anti-nuclears say, ‘Oh my god, you’re laying off people.’ Well, if you inherit a government operation, it certainly behooves you to look for efficiencies.”

Perhaps as serious as safety concerns is how privatization twists the process of shutting down reactors.

In the U.S., even the decommissioning fund established to clean up a facility at the end of its life has become a potential source of profit. Any surplus money left in the fund after cleanup goes to the company.

Is this the best incentive for ensuring the safest possible cleanup?

Here in Ontario, it appears that BE won’t be on the hook for decommissioning at all. At the end of 18 years, the Brits will go home to jolly old England (that is, if they don’t exercise an option for a further 25 years) and we’ll be stuck with the cleanup bill.

And with the nukes’ new lease on life, it seems that the day when we shut down all our reactors and find more planet-friendly sources of power has receded even farther into the future.

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