Remarks by President Velshi to Harvard’s Belfer Center: Are we ready for the unimaginable? Ensuring nuclear safety post-Fukushima



Good morning everyone.

Thank you Aditi for that kind introduction – and thanks to the organizers for inviting me here today.

All of the remarks and panels have been extremely interesting and I hope I am able to contribute similarly.

As we reflect on and remember those lost a decade ago, and those still impacted today, we must renew our commitment to ensuring the safety and security of nuclear facilities.

I’ve been in this industry for 40 years now. In the nuclear world, an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere.

Fukushima. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Each incident transformed public perceptions and heightened concerns about nuclear energy.

We should not turn away from these moments.

Instead, we should make clear that we have learned from them.

We honour those lost by searching for ways to be ever safer… and strengthening public confidence in the value, integrity and safety of nuclear facilities.

Our watchword must be vigilance. Our commitment to safety and security must endure the closest scrutiny.

In Canada, we learned valuable lessons from the Fukushima crisis.

In many areas, we’ve made positive and meaningful reforms. In others, there is still work to be done – both within Canada and across the international community.

Canada’s response – what has changed?

As a country with a small population and vast geography, Canada has had to punch above its weight in the nuclear industry.

Nevertheless, we have been pioneers – as with the creation of the CANDU reactor. Even today, one in 10 reactors in the world is a CANDU.

As a mature, Tier 1 nuclear state with a history of safety excellence, we took quick and comprehensive action in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident.

Our emergency operations centre was activated. It stayed open around the clock to gather the best available information and report to the public.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission – the regulatory agency that I now lead – became the go-to source for Fukushima-related information.

Inspections were immediately performed at all nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities.

The focus was on seismic preparedness, firefighting, backup power, hydrogen build-up prevention and fuel bay cooling.

Two important review bodies were also struck – an internal Task Force and an independent advisory committee.

The Task Force conducted a “stress test” that confirmed the robust nature and safe operation of Canadian nuclear power reactors – but made important recommendations for further improvements.

Importantly, these recommendations led to action – including enhancements to respond to a sustained loss of offsite power and to the potential impact of larger-than-expected floods and other natural disasters.

Meanwhile, the external committee, comprised of independent experts from outside of the industry, which was unique to Canada as far as I am aware, was tasked with reviewing the CNSC response to Fukushima.

It concluded that the response was appropriate – and, again, there were recommendations for even further improvement.

A number of these recommendations related to public communication and human and organizational performance.

Ultimately, the International Atomic Energy Agency examined the Canadian response – and concluded that it was a good practice and approach for international peers to follow.

We responded to all of this with an Integrated Action Plan, which, unique among regulators, we shared for public review and input.

It was approved by our Commission and its implementation was monitored in public proceedings with full transparency and accountability.

It resulted in additional reforms made in the years that followed – in areas like emergency preparedness, response capabilities, real-time radiation monitoring and more.

The key takeaway from all of this work was this: Like many countries, we had thought we were doing all we could to ensure nuclear safety.

We had thought we were fully prepared for the unlikely, the unexpected and the unimaginable.

But this moment of crisis led us to discover that there was more we could do. More we must do – on both prevention and mitigation.

This is a crucial lesson.

We cannot be complacent – not ever.

And we must not wait for another crisis to prompt us into action.

We must at all times remain vigilant against threats – and determined to explore and enact new and even better ways of keeping our facilities safe and secure.

This is true for Canada – and it’s true for all nuclear countries.

In the end, Canada was a significant contributor in the development of the IAEA’s Action Plan on Nuclear Safety – and the report on lessons learned from Fukushima.

Priority Setting In A Post-Fukushima World

As some of you may know, I was an engineer in the nuclear industry beginning in the early 1980s.

Soon after the Fukushima accident, I was appointed to Canada’s nuclear safety commission – one of seven members who make licensing and regulatory decisions for major nuclear facilities.

Fukushima has been an ubiquitous backdrop in my entire tenure at the CNSC.

By the time I became President in 2018, many of the lessons learned from Fukushima had been incorporated into existing priorities and processes.

But there was more work to be done.

Modern nuclear regulation

The first priority I settled on was modernizing our nuclear regulation.

We need to ensure that our regulatory practices and framework are science-based and risk-informed, and take into account uncertainty and changes.

Again, we must take nothing for granted.

This priority is guiding us as we adapt to innovation in the nuclear sector – including the introduction of drones, additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence.

And it is helping us prepare for the proposed introduction and deployment of small modular reactors.

Vendors are proposing a variety of technologies, many with significant differences, and we are currently reviewing 12 designs under a pre-licensing process.

The process is no guarantee of licensing. But it provides vendors an early indication of potential challenges in meeting Canadian requirements.

It also gives CNSC staff much-needed experience and familiarity with the designs, which are different from the CANDU technology we know so well.

Many vendors are touting the robust nature and resilience of their designs, including a reliance on passive safety systems.

Our regulatory frameworks need to keep pace – so they remain relevant and essential as new technologies are introduced.

What makes sense for large, centralized units may not always apply to smaller, distributed modular units.

Our experience with Fukushima will help us look critically at any claims made, particularly in the context of a changing climate and evolving security threats.

Trusted regulator

My second priority has been establishing the CNSC as a trusted regulator – one that is recognized as independent, competent, strong, open and transparent, and a credible source of information.

That’s why our licensing proceedings are conducted publicly, often in host communities. We even provide funding support to those who want to participate in our process.

And we have become focused on building meaningful relationships – and maintaining them over the long term, between licensing hearings, so people stay informed and engaged.

More broadly, Canada and the United Kingdom are working together under the auspices of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency on characteristics in trust in nuclear regulators and we hope to hold a related workshop next year.

Building relationships with Indigenous peoples in Canada is especially important.

Our federal government is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and that is a commitment we share at the CNSC wholeheartedly.

I have been honoured to have the opportunity to meet with and listen to Canadian Indigenous leaders and community members in this role and I continue to learn so much.

Building any relationship can be challenging.

We still have work to do in further strengthening the public’s confidence in us.

But we pride ourselves on our independence and our commitment to transparency. And we are confident that this commitment will continue to serve us well.

Agile organization

Which brings me to the third priority I established – ensuring the CNSC is an agile organization.

An agile organization is one that is flexible and inclusive, where staff feel empowered and equipped, and where people are able to adapt quickly to an evolving work environment.

Fukushima underscored the importance of an empowered workforce – one where freedom to offer a dissenting opinion is welcomed.

Groupthink can lead to undesirable outcomes.

I encourage my staff to provide open and candid advice and feedback– I tell them: if they see or know something, say something!

Creating that type of culture is important, particularly as we go through a demographic transition.

It is imperative that we retain the experience and knowledge of our departing staff and impart it to new staff, who of course bring their own experiences and skill sets.

We must be diverse and inclusive, and strive for gender diversity, because we are smarter, more innovative and make better and stronger decisions when all perspectives and backgrounds are at the table.

We are making strides around the world – the industry looks significantly different than when I started out, but it is still far from reflective of our societies.

We need our staff to be engaged because Fukushima taught us that safety culture – the human and organizational elements that define how we approach safety – can have a huge impact on outcomes.

This is as true for regulators as it is for operators.

Global influence

Our fourth priority is having a global influence.

As I mentioned earlier, Canada has a long, proud and positive history in the nuclear community.

We were proud to play a leadership role internationally in the aftermath of Fukushima.

Today, we are working to lead the way on international collaboration in the interests of nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation – including support for peer review missions.

It is never a bad idea to have experts from around the world take a close look at what we do – and identify areas for further improvement.

It is one of the most effective ways to avoid complacency and instill a culture of continuous improvement in safety and security.

Yes, sometimes the findings and recommendations of these missions can be disputed. That’s all part of a valuable process.

The back-and-forth debate and discussion is part of the reason why transparent reports of this kind are so crucial.

Peer reviews have been strengthened since Fukushima, but there is still no mechanism to hold countries and governments to account if recommendations are not addressed.

The IAEA Board of Governors could play a stronger role in this.

We will continue to advocate strongly for the importance of peer reviews and encourage all nuclear countries to participate and publish the reports.

International collaboration becomes more pivotal as new and innovative nuclear technologies emerge.

No country is likely to have all the answers – or a monopoly on insight or foresight.

Together, however, our collective intelligence and experience can help us navigate the new and unfamiliar.

And since nuclear regulators share a commitment to safety, it only makes sense to collaborate so that we make the best use of our collective time and resources.

Small modular reactors, or SMRs, are an excellent example.

My staff do not have direct experience with many of the designs we are reviewing.

But experts in other countries do.

Collaborating with other regulators is a way to increase the diversity of safety assessments to get better safety outcomes.

For that reason, I am thrilled that over the last two years we have signed agreements with regulators in the United States and United Kingdom to guide our collaborative efforts on SMRs.

Through our collective leadership, I am hopeful that we will gradually build trust and get to a point where the licensing and approval processes can be harmonized where possible.

For now, we are working to establish harmonized international standards that are commensurate with the risks presented and are minimally sufficient for the needs of all countries.

I am pleased that my colleagues on the IAEA’s Commission on Safety Standards, that I have the honour to chair, have agreed to prioritize exactly that.

Lessons yet to be learned, still in progress

We have all learned important lessons from the Fukushima crisis. The industry is safer today as a result.

But there are also areas in which our learning remains incomplete and ongoing.

1. I’ll start with what I think requires our most immediate and ongoing attention – safety culture.

It is clear from Fukushima that safety culture can have a direct impact on nuclear safety and security.

Safety culture is foundational and applies to everything we do, regulators and operators alike.

And its scope is much broader than just operators and regulators.

Safety culture principles can be more widely applied to all nuclear decision makers including boards of directors of nuclear companies and government policy makers.

We have seen real progress on this front, but much more can be done to ensure strong safety culture, because it impacts all that we do in every moment.

I think we all have much to learn and work to do on safety culture, and there is support out there for all of us.

The Nuclear Energy Agency and World Association of Nuclear Operators offer a country specific safety culture forum to help countries assess the status of their safety culture.

These fora help countries engage in a dialogue and reflect on how the national attributes of a country can influence nuclear safety culture.

This fall, Canada will be the third country to welcome the workshop and I hope many other countries will also host similar workshops in the near future.

2. A second area for further attention is post-accident recovery.

Fukushima showed the need for international and national standards and guidance on recovery.

While Canada has since established guidance, there is more work to be done, especially on the safety of returning populations to impacted sites.

Part of this work is a better understanding of the health effects of low-dose radiation.

I was surprised to learn recently that two IAEA emergency management conventions – one on notification and the other on assistance – were adopted less than half a year after Chernobyl and haven’t been touched since.

The implementation of these conventions needs to be strengthened – so that we are all in a better position to understand the risks and the reality.

It is especially important during emergency response to ensure that the best science is considered and that decisions go beyond considerations of short-term risk.

That is why it is so important to conduct realistic emergency exercises that include transition to recovery, even if the initiating events might sometimes seem far-fetched.

Exercises of this kind build knowledge, experience and operational excellence. They help to prepare us for the unknown.

3. Working to improve communications – especially risk communications – is another area of focus and ongoing work.

On one hand, we have more ways than ever to communicate with the general public – and with specific communities.

On the other, it can be difficult to cut through the noise – and to reach people on issues that can often be technical in nature.

The upshot is that communication challenges remain – and we must continue to search for methods and tactics that resonate and have an impact.

This will be an ongoing journey that must adapt to the ever-changing social and media landscape.

4. The robustness and reliability of our infrastructure – be it telecommunication, access to power and water etc. is another area requiring our attention.

We live in a time when natural disasters are occurring with greater frequency and severity.

We must constantly challenge our assumptions and our preparations – based on current and evolving evidence.

I’ll give you an example. The power outages in the American south, Texas in particular, a few weeks ago, caught authorities by surprise – and caused terrible consequences.

Normally, in Canada, we wouldn’t worry about the risk of extreme cold weather. Nor extreme heat. Because of our climate, our facilities and infrastructure are built to robust standards.

But our climate is changing. Severe events and fluctuations are increasingly common.

And so, I’ve directed my staff to bring a fresh eye to climate risk – and consider if new evidence should prompt a new way of thinking on our part.

Whether it's regulators or policy makers who make the final decision, we need to be willing to explore the need for infrastructure improvements that may not be directly nuclear related – but can nevertheless improve nuclear safety and preparedness.

It’s all about making decisions based on up-to-date data and science that are both risk-informed and respect Defence-in-Depth principles.

5. Finally, I would point to one last area where post- Fukushima work is ongoing.

As innovative and new technologies are introduced, we must look critically at ourselves as regulators to ensure we are not an unnecessary barrier to their adoption.

We must always remember that we exist to protect people from risk – not from progress.

I am sure my counterparts will agree that we have no interest in preventing efficiency and innovation.

We must never compromise on safety – but we can ask ourselves if we are focused on the optimal level of safety.

Are our regulatory frameworks, requirements and approaches right for the technologies before us – and the technologies that are emerging?

We need to keep working to find the right balance.
As part of that work, it is essential that regulators are competent and well resourced.

For recent lessons about the essential need for a strong, effective regulator, we need only reflect on the Boeing 737 Max investigations – or the experience with counterfeit equipment in nuclear facilities in South Korea.

If regulators do not have the time, knowledge and resources – or the independence to review what is before them and make decisions based on fact and science – then the stage is set for the approval of designs or approaches that are not fully understood.

That is a recipe for disaster.

Leveraging Fukushima lessons learned in an innovative and interconnected world

Before concluding my remarks, I would like to briefly consider the effective manner in which the nuclear sector responded to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Nuclear power plants continued to operate and provided much needed electricity and sterilization of protective equipment.

In Canada, operators stepped up and offered support to frontline workers and communities.

Emergency and business continuity plans were operationalized. Health and safety measures were deployed to ensure minimum staff levels for safe operation.

Regulators transitioned to remote oversight and strong safety oversight didn’t miss a beat.

On both sides, innovative approaches to inspections and communication were employed to maintain constant oversight and safe contact.

Best practices were shared among operators and regulators to help each other respond to a quickly evolving situation.

And international collaboration has actually grown. I know I’m not alone in saying that I have participated in more international events this past year than ever before – without the jet lag.

This shows the strength of our preparatory work – and the effectiveness of our contingency measures.

At the same time, the pandemic has required us to look even harder at our assumptions about our readiness to respond.

As information and technology shrink the world, as our climate changes, as new risks emerge and familiar risks endure, we must be more vigilant than ever.

We must be willing to challenge our assumptions – and change our minds.

We must be on the lookout for evolving trends and new threats.

We must be focused on prevention and response – on anticipation and, where necessary, on mitigation.

And we must never lose sight of the fact that safety is our priority and collaboration is our strength.

I am grateful to Harvard and the Belfer Center for organizing and hosting this event. And as a member of the IAEA’s Steering Committee for their Fukushima Conference, which is now re-scheduled for this November and co-hosted by the Government of Japan, I welcome you all to participate in that conference.

Thank you and I look forward to a discussion with Aditi and questions from you.


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