| Feb. 27, 2003. 01:00 AM
Safety lapse at Bruce not revealed to watchdog
Nuclear commissioners left in the dark Foul-up was rated as a `serious event' when reported
OTTAWA—The public members of Canada's nuclear safety watchdog were left in the dark by their own officials for four weeks about a serious safety problem at the Bruce nuclear power station, even though they were holding hearings on whether to let two old reactors start up again at the same place.
Denying them the information meant they couldn't properly safeguard the public, several members of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission said here yesterday at a public session. They also said they no longer accepted the assurances of Bruce Power and their own staff that the six reactors at the Lake Huron site would be operated safely.
"I'm not satisfied. I don't feel warm and fuzzy that everything is great," said commissioner Alan Graham, a former energy minister in New Brunswick which operates a nuclear power station.
Another commissioner, Calgary environmental lawyer Letha MacLachlan, said the safety lapse "shakes my confidence in the assertions" that Bruce Power made at a commission hearing last month about its top-quality management systems.
The dissatisfaction of Graham and MacLachlan was echoed by the four other commissioners who weren't told about the safety problem at an initial Jan. 16 hearing into restarting two mothballed reactors first operated in 1978 as part of the original Bruce-A power station.
Getting the two old reactors delivering 1,500 megawatts of electricity by summer to the provincial grid is considered essential to avoid the threat of brownouts.
The safety problem occurred during a routine maintenance shutdown of one of four reactors in Bruce-B, the newer half of the power station that began service in 1986.
A Bruce engineer botched the installation of a super-sensitive instrument that was supposed to detect the lower-than-normal levels of neutrons in the shutdown reactor. Collisions of neutrons cause the controlled chain reaction of nuclear fission that produces the reactor power. But because the low-level detector was put in the wrong place it was useless. The reactor operators only discovered the mistake after three weeks when they started to let the flow of neutrons build up again inside the reactor.
Both CNSC staff and Bruce Power insisted there was no potential threat to the public because two independent safety systems were still available to shut down the reactor. But these assurances did little to mollify the commissioners.
"There is no room for error in the nuclear industry, as there are in other fields," said Graham.
"This is not a single human error. This is a flaw in the system," said MacLachlan.
Commissioner Chris Barnes said the safety lapse was "a reflection on whether Bruce Power has the management systems to run Bruce A and B safely and concurrently."
The commissioners were also upset when they found out they were the only people at the Jan. 16 hearing who didn't know about the detector foul-up, rated as a "serious event" by their own staff.
As required under federal law, Bruce Power had immediately reported the safety problem to CNSC officials when it was discovered on Dec. 23.
Officials quickly informed CNSC president Linda Keen, a former bureaucrat with the federal natural resources department who is the only full-time member of the seven-person watchdog commission and also the boss of the 500-person staff.
But no one informed the six commissioners appointed to represent the public when they were asking questions about the "safety culture" at Bruce Power during the Jan. 16 hearing into restarting the two mothballed reactors.
Instead the commissioners — and the public — only learned of the incident Feb. 12.