Communicating with Canadians about nuclear safety

Canada's nuclear industry is dedicated to transparency and proactive communication, but these are a shared responsibility among regulators, write Jason Cameron and Sunni Locatelli.

When the current Canadian government took office, it made a commitment to its citizens to enhance openness and transparency. It wanted to pursue its priorities with a renewed sense of collaboration and a willingness to listen. In this new environment of open government, citizens - including indigenous peoples - would be engaged and consulted widely. The government expected that our work would be informed by feedback from Canadians, who expect us to be honest, open and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest.

With a mandate to disseminate objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), as Canada's regulator, goes to great lengths to ensure that it is being open and transparent in all of its dealings. The CNSC has worked to increase Canadians' awareness of our role, hear stakeholder concerns, share our knowledge and expertise, and forge partnerships with our licensees.

Transparency is important for increasing public understanding and trust in the CNSC's role of protecting Canadians, their health and the environment. The CNSC also believes that establishing an atmosphere of openness with the public should be a key priority for all national nuclear regulators, and that transparency and proactive communications are a shared responsibility among regulators, facility operators and international organizations involved in nuclear safety and security.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident showed that nuclear regulators around the world needed to enhance their communications with the public. The CNSC has done this while advocating for greater transparency internationally. Also, major facility operators in Canada are now required to formalize and make public their public information and disclosure program.

It is important to the CNSC to actively engage and consult with the public. When proposing new or revising existing regulatory requirements, the CNSC consults broadly, actively seeking input from licensees, the public, non-governmental organizations, all levels of government, and international stakeholders. A variety of vehicles – including website announcements, social media postings and email distribution lists – are used to solicit this feedback. The CNSC considers all input when finalizing its regulatory requirements.

The Commission - the CNSC's decision-making body for major nuclear facilities – promotes openness and transparency by conducting public hearings and meetings, and by broadcasting these proceedings via live webcasts online on the CNSC website at nuclearsafety.gc.ca for those who cannot attend in person, and transcripts are made available on the site shortly afterwards. When possible, these proceedings are held in the communities where nuclear facilities are located. This ensures that the public most directly implicated by the matter at hand will have a voice in the decision-making process.

Indigenous peoples, as well as other members of the public including staff, participate in public hearings via written submissions and oral presentations. The CNSC's Participant Funding Program, established in 2011, enhances public participation by offering compensation to participate in the environmental assessment and licensing process, and helps participants give valuable information to the Commission.

Travelling throughout the country, CNSC staff regularly visit Canadians in their communities to answer their questions on nuclear regulation. Stakeholders are also engaged through a variety of outreach events across Canada. For instance, CNSC staff attend conferences and events to promote our educational materials on the regulation of the nuclear industry to teachers or to provide municipalities with information on radiation and environmental protection.

The CNSC encourages its experts to share their knowledge, and many of their technical articles have been peer-reviewed and published in various scientific journals. Scientific and technical paper abstracts, as well as journal articles, are also published on nuclearsafety.gc.ca. Data from CNSC's Independent Environmental Monitoring Program, which includes engagement with Indigenous peoples, is also published on the CNSC website.

While the CNSC continually strives to be a leader in public communication on nuclear safety, it is also the industry's responsibility to build trust. Licensees must do their part and provide information on their safety records and nuclear activities to their stakeholders and the people living near their facilities.

This industry's responsibility to communicate was formalized in 2013, when the CNSC implemented new regulatory requirements outlined in RD/GD-99.3, Public Information and Disclosure. These requirements put the onus on licensees to define their targeted audiences and to proactively inform them and stakeholders of the facilities' regular activities as well as any accidents.

The CNSC expects licensee-managed public information programs to work towards building public awareness and understanding of their nuclear activities. Developing and maintaining open communication channels, and sharing information regularly, will go a long way in assisting the facility and the public under regular operating circumstances or during an emergency.

Contributing to a transparent regulatory environment in Canada is hard work, but the end result is a better informed Canadian public. Our ongoing dialogue with the public about our role in protecting Canadians, their health and the environment through effective nuclear regulation continues to be a priority as we deliver our mandate and strive to be a world leader in transparency.

Jason Cameron and Sunni Locatelli

Jason K. Cameron is CNSC vice president and chief communications officer and Sunni Locatelli is CNSC director general of strategic communications.