ENERGY

A nuclear loophole

ANNE STEACY May 11 1987
ENERGY

A nuclear loophole

ANNE STEACY May 11 1987

A nuclear loophole

ENERGY

Millions of people live and work in the cities, suburbs, small towns and on farms that surround Ontario Hydro’s nuclear power plant at Pickering, 35 km east of Toronto. And most seem to be secure in the knowledge that their homes and properties are insured against such disasters as fire and flooding.

But if a fire were to occur at the power station—potentially a devastating disaster-surviving area residents might receive next to nothing in compensation under Canada’s Nuclear Liability Act. As a result, Energy Probe, a Torontobased antinuclear group, is challenging the act in the Supreme Court of Ontario under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The act, which Parliament proclaimed in 1976, limits the liability of power-plant operators in the

event of a nuclear accident to a total of $75 million. If the act were followed to the letter and, for example, three million people were affected by an accident at Pickering—their homes and busi-

nesses destroyed by fire or contaminated by radiation fallout—each might receive as little as $25 in property damages, with no guaranteed entitlement to anything more. Energy Probe’s lawyers are filing suit against the federal government, claiming that the act denies victims of nuclear accidents their full rights under the law.

Although the act requires the federal government to establish a commission to review claims when damage exceeds the $75-million ceiling, it does not force the government to provide any further compensation. In addition, the act requires that victims file damage claims within 10 years of the incident. Any claimants who developed cancer, genetic abnormalities or other resulting debilities after that would have no legal recourse. A federal interdepartmental working group that has been reviewing the act since 1982 angered opponents of those policies in 1984, when it released a discussion paper suggesting that the $75million limit and 10-year cutoff on claims were adequate. But Energy Probe charges that the monetary

restriction is merely a symptom of the real problem, which is that the operators of nuclear power plants are not being held responsible for risks they create. Said Energy Probe lawyer David Poch: “It’s not just that it is inadequate; it is counterproductive. We want them to do away with the act.”

Poch argues that the very existence of the act limits the responsibility of the operators of Canada’s six major nuclear generating stations in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. Instead, he says, the power-station operators should be liable for the entire cost of

compensation, and they should be forced to carry enough insurance to cover any potential risks. Said Poch: “That $75 million doesn’t go very far when you’re talking about radiation raining down on Toronto.” He added that the insurance industry should be free to determine the price of insurance that is necessary. “Risk assessment is what these guys do for a living,” he said. “They’re the guys who should be figuring it out—Lloyds of London, not Ontario Hydro.”

Currently, all liability policies for the country’s nuclear power industry are

covered by the Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada, a Toronto-based coalition of Canada’s 90 major insurance companies. Association manager Dale Wood said that he is disappointed with the working group’s position, and he pointed out that the consumer price index has more than doubled since the act was written in 1970.

The group, representing the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), the Treasury Board and the departments of energy, finance, insurance and justice, is expected to report to Energy Minister Marcel Masse this summer. But Poch said that Energy Probe refused to participate in the review because “it appeared to be a sham.” Indeed, Poch charged that the group had reached an agreement on its policy before it invited public comment on its interim report. Said Poch: “It was basically a list of their conclusions saying, ‘Everything is hunky-dory.’ ” But group chairman Robert Blackburn, AECB director of planning, told Maclean ’s that the group is considering all the comments it has received. He added, “If Energy Probe had submitted comments, those comments would have been considered.”

For his part, Edward Burdette, Ontario Hydro’s executive vice-president, says that the limits may need to be increased to compensate for inflation but that they should also reflect the unlikelihood of an accident as well as the possible damage that one could cause. Burdette, who says that Ontario Hydro paid $1 million for liability insurance on its Pickering plant alone last year, points out that there has never been a claim made under the act.

But with the effects of the worst nuclear accident in history still being tallied in the Soviet Union, the consequences of such a catastrophe are no longer simply a matter of conjecture. A year ago an explosion at a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine spread clouds of radiation-contaminated dust across the U.S.S.R. and parts of Western Europe.

The death toll from the disaster at Chernobyl, 100 km north of Kiev, is estimated at 31. But medical experts are concerned that serious genetic abnormalities could occur in up to 10,000 people. And if an accident of similar or larger proportions were to occur in Canada, Canadians would have little recourse through the insurance industry. Beyond property damage, almost all personal insurance policies exclude death or injury from nuclear accidents. Clearly, when the federal working group submits its recommendations this summer, many Canadians will be hoping that the nuclear industry will be forced to reconsider its responsibilities.

— ANNE STEACY in Toronto with

CRAIG BENJAMIN