Nuclear plant balks at regulator request to test all employees for radiation

Ontario’s Bruce Power says it’s too difficult, time consuming to get samples as requested by Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission June 23, 2010

Federal regulators at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission have asked the operator of an Ontario power plant to test hundreds of its workers by this Friday for exposure to cancer-causing alpha radiation, but the company is balking at the request.

Bruce Power says it is too difficult and time consuming to get the fecal samples needed to evaluate whether the employees, selected for testing because they handle nuclear fuel or do maintenance work, have been exposed to radiation. It wants to first survey 38 people to confirm that further testing is warranted.

“That’s the proposal that we’re going to go back to the CNSC with and our plan at this point,” says Bruce spokesman John Peevers.

The request by the commission was issued to Bruce last week and was followed on Monday by a letter to senior officials at the country’s three other nuclear plant operators — Ontario Power Generation, NB Power, and Hydro-Québec — telling them to investigate their plants for possible alpha radiation hazards and implement controls to mitigate potential worker exposures.

The call by the CNSC for what amounts to mass testing at Bruce and the actions at other plants is an indication of serious concern about potential radiation hazards within the power stations.

But it is unusual for a nuclear operator to balk at a formal, written request for action from the CNSC. The call to conduct tests was made by Greg Rzentkowski, director-general at the commission, in a letter to a Bruce vice-president of nuclear oversight Frank Saunders.

Mr. Peevers said the company’s response to the CNSC is open to negotiation. Under the applicable sections of the government’s General Nuclear Safety and Control Regulations, federal inspectors issue requests to nuclear companies, and not binding orders, he said.

The CNSC said it issued Bruce “a request for corrective action” and is evaluating Bruce’s position. “As the Canadian nuclear regulator, the CNSC's #1 priority is the health and safety of nuclear power workers and the public,” said CNSC spokesman Aurele Gervais. NB Power spokesperson Kathleen Duguay said the utility has “no indication” it faces the same problems as at Bruce.

A spokesman for Ontario Power Generation said the utility plans to co-operate with the regulator.

“The CNSC has asked us to demonstrate that we’ve got the programs in place to protect our employees,” the spokesman said. “We have a deadline of July 30. We’re working towards that.”

Hydro-Québec did not respond to requests for comment.

The actions by the commission are some of the most sweeping it has undertaken regarding possible radiation exposure to workers at Canadian nuclear plants. It follows the discovery that last November workers refurbishing a reactor at the Bruce site on the shores of Lake Huron near Port Elgin had been in an area containing unexpectedly high levels of alpha radiation. Inhalation of the radiation is a lung cancer risk and its finding indicates the presence of radioactive waste particles.

To date, 581 workers at Bruce have been tested. None of the results from 39 of the tests posted by Bruce on its website in March indicates exposures above federal occupational standards, which allow workers to receive up to 50 millisieverts of radiation per year on the job, the equivalent of receiving about 500 chest x-rays.

Up until the Bruce discovery, alpha radiation had been viewed as being of little concern at Canadian nuclear plants. The industry had assumed only low levels of the contaminant, based on ratios involving other forms of radiation.

Mr. Peevers said ratios prevailing in the industry to calculate alpha radiation may have been set too low.