Ontario's Nuclear Village
When the story of the Fukushima catastrophe was told, one of the evident lessons learned was that the “nuclear village” of Japan was an insular rats’ nest of incestuous relations between power utilities, workers’ unions, professional organizations, advertising agencies, media, academics, journalists, bureaucrats and political parties. Even the judiciary was on board, having sided with the nuclear industry and national energy policy in numerous lawsuits brought by citizens’ groups that tried to raise the alarm about the potential for an unprecedented earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome.
In 2009 the opposition Democratic Party of Japan came to power, but they too were pro-nuclear because of the support they had from power plant workers’ unions. Japan Press Weekly reported,
“Donations to the DPJ and its lawmakers come not only from nuclear-related corporations but also from pro-business labor unions. The pro-business Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) affiliated-Federation of Electric Power Related Industry Workers’ Unions of Japan (Denryoku Soren) and its member unions give donations to the DPJ.”
It was only after the meltdowns that Prime Minister Naoto Kan made his conversion to being anti-nuclear, while his successor from the same party remained pro-nuclear.
I use the word “union” above loosely because nuclear workers in Japan seem to have never had anything resembling a healthy oppositional relationship with management. None of these worker unions threatened action over safety issues, or fought for equal benefits for sub-contracted labor that was always stuck with the dirty and dangerous jobs. The unions and professional organizations recognized that they had common interests with their employers, and when disaster struck, they had been playing along obediently for a long time. It was common knowledge to everyone working in the Fukushima Daiichi plant that the sea wall wasn’t high enough, yet management didn’t have to worry that there would ever be job action over the issue.
These considerations make me wonder why Bruce Power Limited Partnership (Ontario, Canada), operator of the world’s largest nuclear power station on the shores of Lake Huron, needs to have the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System as a major partner, and The Society of Energy Professionals and the Power Workers’ Union as minor partners. The former has a 1.2% share, and the latter has a 4% share. If regulators and politicians aren't allowed to have investments in the industries that they oversee, why is it all right for staff in a power plant to have a similar conflict of interest?
It is easy to predict the answer given by the company. This investment should create an incentive for workers to care about the long-term viability and safety of the power plant. They would never dare overlook a safety issue that might later lead to scandal or a regulator shutting down operations, would they?
In spite of this theoretical positive incentive, there is another one working to negate it. Because of the workers’ investment in the company, anyone who might otherwise be tempted to blow the whistle on a safety concern now has a reason to hesitate. Speaking up might cause the plant to close down for a while and have a bad quarter, or if it’s a serious problem, it might lead to a permanent shutdown.
It’s bad enough that one’s job security is often the reason to ignore safety concerns, so it is difficult to understand why an additional conflict has to be added to the organizational structure. The history of industrial accidents and scandals shows that the person who brings problems to public attention is often the whistleblower who had knowledge of day-to-day operations. The people who have the official responsibility for guaranteeing safety are more famous for the hazards they overlooked.
The above criticism of a weakness in the organizational structure is not a criticism of the many individuals in the nuclear industry and regulatory bodies who work very diligently and ensure safety. Nothing horrible has happened (in Ontario), so they must be doing many things right that the public never notices. In places with a good safety culture workers are taught to question a superior’s orders if they seem to be violations of safety, and they are explicitly trained not to give in to the temptation of letting mishaps go unreported, or altering records in the hope that regulators won’t find out. In light of how much has been done to improve institutional safety culture in recent years, it is just strange that the partnership arrangement at Bruce is not considered a problem.
The entities that have the larger interests in the Bruce Power Limited Partnership (Cameco Corporation, TransCanada Corporation* and BPC Generation Infrastructure Trust,** each with 31.6%) have obvious incentives to get the workers’ groups on board. It’s not as if they were utterly incapable of finding investors to buy the last 5.2% share of ownership. The important thing was to make sure that everyone working at the plant was co-opted.
This blog has pointed to no evidence of safety lapses at Bruce Power, but it does pose an important hypothetical question. If a senior engineer came to feel that management was refusing to address serious safety concerns, would he speak out, or would he worry about the consequences a shutdown would have on his retirement plan?
* Bruce Power proudly boasts of its contribution to reducing carbon emissions, but the major partner, Transcanada Corporation, is primarily involved in the oil industry, most notoriously the Keystone XL pipeline that will send tar sands oil from Alberta to the American refineries. If the company had a principled stance that nuclear was a solution to global warming, it would not accept members of the oil industry as partners.
** BPC Generation Infrastructure Trust was established by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System specifically as a way to hold a major stake in Bruce Power. This partnership establishes grassroots support for nuclear power, but such support can only be in the form of financial interest. The partnership also guarantees that the support is a political issue. The sudden devaluation of civil servants’ retirement funds can quickly become a political crisis, thus support for nuclear energy has been woven into the social fabric of the province. Like Japan, Ontario has its own nuclear village. Support has been constructed so that it is not based on a rational or principled evaluation by the public of nuclear energy’s merits and demerits.
“DPJ’s cozy ties with Nuclear-related companies and unions affect resumption of Nuclear Power Plant,” Japan Press Weekly, April 18, 2012.
Roger Pulvers, “Citizens’ lack of resolve leaves nuclear door wide open for next disaster,” The Japan Times, February 3, 2103.