Remarks by President Velshi at a side event at the 63rd International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference
September 18, 2019
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Strengthening public trust: What it takes to be a trusted regulator
Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you, Madam Ambassador, for your kind introduction. I am delighted to be here with you.
As nuclear regulators, it is our responsibility to ensure that we hold ourselves to a high standard when it comes to protecting health, safety, security and the environment. Because we serve the public, we must do this in a way that cultivates public trust.
At the CNSC, strengthening public trust is a core strategic objective. If the public does not trust us, how can we deliver on our mandate?
In Canada, Indigenous community members and other stakeholders tell us that part of being a trusted regulator means being open and transparent, and demonstrating to your stakeholders how their interests are reflected in your actions.
These days, sound science alone is not enough to convince people. Just look at how quickly vaccination hesitancy has spread through social media into the mainstream. This has become such a concern that this year, the World Health Organization declared it a top 10 threat to global health, alongside Ebola and HIV.
As we continue to look for a way forward to build trust, we must first learn from our past.
In Canada in 2010, a utility applied to ship contaminated steam generators to Sweden for recycling. Seems like a good thing, right? But when people became aware of what was planned, the backlash and fear seen in communities along the transport route was significant.
Testing showed that the generators were minimally contaminated and posed no real threat to public health or the environment.
Despite CNSC approval of the shipment, public opposition continued. Ultimately, the utility decided against moving the generators. They are still there to this day.
Contrast this with a presentation I saw last year from the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Ms. Kelbie’s organization.
Five contaminated boilers were removed from the Berkeley nuclear power station and transported to Sweden for recycling.
They were trucked down a narrow street past curious but seemingly unconcerned onlookers.
The difference in public attitudes could not have been starker.
Why was this the case?
To understand this, let us unpack how trust is cultivated.
There are three things we should consider:
First, regulators need to be open and engaged. People build trust when they see their interests and values reflected in our work.
Second, regulators need to be perceived as fair. For this to happen, independence from both industry and government influence is key.
And finally, trust is built on the public’s perception of organizational competence. Technical skills are essential, but equally important are communication, collaboration and interpersonal skills. This topic will be discussed tomorrow at the Senior Regulators’ Meeting.
I believe we need all three attributes if we are to build trust.
In simple terms, building trust is not something you do. It is a product of how you do things.
This means we have to weave trust-building behaviours into everything we do.
At the CNSC, we work hard to strengthen public trust. To this end, here are a few things we are doing.
Our Commission proceedings are open to the public, civil society organizations and Indigenous groups. We also offer funding opportunities to those interested in taking part in proceedings, which removes barriers to participation. We see the benefit of having a fair process in place that respects and welcomes diverse views. Recently, community members and civil society organizations expressed concerns during a proceeding about the distribution of potassium iodide, otherwise known as KI pills. This led to the creation of a multi-party working group to address their concerns.
One of our most important relationships is the one with Indigenous peoples. We are building and formalizing long-term relationships with Indigenous groups. We also have funded Indigenous knowledge studies that have helped us to better understand their values and connection to their traditional territories. Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous cultural context enhance the CNSC’s understanding of potential impacts of projects and strengthen the rigour of our reviews and regulatory oversight.
Data and information transparency are also important to us, which is why we aim to give the public access to the information they need.
This increasingly includes providing civil society organizations with raw data, empowering them to conduct their own independent, detailed analysis.
Our comprehensive, open and transparent approach to public involvement was recognized as a strength by the International Regulatory Review Service in 2009 and again in 2019. Even though this is encouraging, we cannot afford to be complacent.
While all of these initiatives are positive, I continue to ask these questions: "Are we doing the right things?", "Is this enough?" and "Where should we go next?"
Strengthening public trust is no easy task, and we do not have all of the answers.
We are exploring ways to measure the impact of our actions so we can determine what works and what needs to be adjusted.
One thing is certain: To assess our progress, we will need to solicit feedback from Indigenous groups and other stakeholders to see if we are heading in the right direction. The steps we have taken so far are laying the groundwork for a positive path forward.
So what next?
Trust has to come from within. Regulators cannot build strong public trust without staff who believe that genuine engagement is essential. We work to reinforce safety culture within our organizations – we must do the same when it comes to trust building.
Anyone, expert or not, can provide valuable input. As leaders, we must help our people – who are often data- and process-driven and believe that science tells the whole story – to welcome diverse views.
Science may give us the answers, but alone it is not sufficient to change minds.
As we move forward, we must not forget how trust is built. We need to sustain our efforts and continue to seek stakeholders’ values and interests; demonstrate fairness and independence; and exhibit organizational competence in everything we do. We must also learn from each other.
I look forward to hearing from all of you today about the activities you are pursuing to cultivate trust.
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