Ms. Chris Charlton (Hamilton Mountain, NDP):
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise today and join my NDP colleagues in speaking against Bill C-20, the nuclear liability and compensation act. In fact, we are the only party in this House that refuses to give the government a blank cheque on this inadequate reform to the limits of nuclear liability.
Simply put, I oppose this bill because it does not keep pace with the rest of the world's measures to provide safe use of nuclear energy. Nonetheless, there is no doubt about the need for modernizing the act. The liability limits were initially set in the early 1970s by the Liberals, but the limits were inadequate even then and certainly by today's standards are even worse.
To its credit, this bill does propose to increase the maximum liability for operators of nuclear installations for damage resulting from a nuclear accident from $75 million to $650 million per nuclear installation, but this limit remains shamefully low when we consider the consequences of a nuclear accident.
This bill seems designed to protect corporations rather than citizens. The total liability is way too low and will not be able to cover a medium-sized accident, never mind a catastrophic one. It has been estimated that a nuclear accident would cause billions of dollars in damage in personal injuries, death and contamination of the surrounding areas. According to the director of environmental governance for the Pembina Institute, a major accident at the Darlington, Ontario nuclear plant east of Toronto, and very near to my own riding of Hamilton Mountain, could cause damages in the range of an estimated $1 trillion.
Six hundred and fifty million dollars does not even come close to being adequate and taxpayers will be on the hook for the difference. Does the government and its friends in the Liberal Party and the Bloc Québécois really believe that $650 million would be sufficient to clean up and rebuild after such a disaster? Apparently so.
The U.S., on the other hand, has a cap of $10 billion. Germany, which has experienced the fallout of the Chernobyl meltdown, has an unlimited amount. Many other countries are also moving in that direction toward an unlimited amount of liability. Does the government really believe that Canadian lives, properties and communities are worth less than those of our U.S. and European counterparts? Again, judging by this legislation, one would think so.
Even relatively minor nuclear accidents can have huge costs. In the 1960s, a minor issue in a reactor in Michigan cost an estimated $132 million and that was over 40 years ago, but the government, propped up again by its partners in the Liberal Party and the Bloc Québécois, believes this bill goes far enough.
One of my big concerns is that this bill really is not about protecting Canadians but is all about the Conservative government laying the groundwork to sell Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Privatization should never be acceptable and particularly not during tough economic times when the value is at its lowest and the Conservatives are contemplating a fire sale.
Perhaps more than anything else, this bill and the debate around it highlight the outrageous costs and potentially devastating risks of nuclear energy, particularly when we compare it to greener, more sustainable alternatives.
For example, the Three Mile Island incident outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979, which my colleagues have already talked about, was a relatively minor nuclear accident, but it cost an estimated $975 million for the cleanup and investigation. To put the absolute enormity of these costs into context, for the cost of cleaning up Three Mile Island, 1,147,058 100-watt solar panels could have been bought and assembled.
The total subsidies for Canada's state-owned nuclear company, AECL, from 1952 to 2000, were approximately $16 billion. This is money that could be spent investigating safer methods of energy. But the enormous costs do not just apply when things go bad. The planned construction costs for the third Fermi plant in Michigan will cost an estimated $10 billion U.S. and take approximately six years to complete. The price of wind power, on the other hand, is dropping fast and can even be had for as low as 16¢ per kilowatt hour right now. Imagine the cost savings to taxpayers and the lower electricity bills for seniors and hard-working families if we could shift to cheaper, safer and more sustainable power. On top of the financial expenses, nuclear energy in general is extremely unsafe, both to the environment and to human life.
There can be no doubt that Canada needs a greener approach in terms of power. Statistics show that Canada ranked 11th in 2008 in a poll measuring wind power capacity. If Canada expects to be seen as a leader in the world, we need to compete in the field of clean renewable energy.
This pressing need is why we in the NDP launched a task force on the economic recovery which I have been proud to co-chair with my colleague, the member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, who has done incredible work on environmental issues over the years.
As we confront the current economic crisis, we must be looking toward the future. We must ensure that the economy of the 21st century is green, sustainable and affordable for ordinary Canadians.
In my hometown of Hamilton, community organizations, environmentalists and ordinary citizens are coming together to imagine and realize that kind of green future.
Green Venture, for example, has been doing home energy evaluation since 1997.
Environment Hamilton recently received a Trillium Foundation grant in support of its work on a green economic recovery for Hamilton. Environment Hamilton understands that fighting climate change and creating green jobs go hand in hand. I want to congratulate Lynda Lukasik, who is the executive director of Environment Hamilton, her staff and the board at Environment Hamilton for securing this important multi-year grant for advancing the future of our city.
Environment Hamilton has also launched an innovative project aimed at helping Hamilton area faith groups to conserve energy both at home and in their places of worship.
I recognize that nuclear energy provides jobs for a large number of Canadians and has been a part of our economy since 1949. The industry cannot and will not disappear overnight, but the real issue is that Bill C-20 just does not do enough to bring safety to a naturally unsafe and volatile substance. The compensation process would remain cumbersome and force victims of nuclear accidents to go through the courts. We know how costly and inaccessible the courts are as a remedy for this kind of situation.
Furthermore, the bill does not cover any accidents outside of the plant setting. Oil and mining companies and medical facilities use radioactive materials that can be dangerous, but they are not liable for any accidents related to their use or disposal.
It is as clear as it is unfortunate that only the NDP is serious about protecting the interests of ordinary Canadians while the other parties take a rather cavalier attitude to nuclear safety.
I can only hope that this debate will give the government, members of the Liberal Party and the Bloc Québécois pause. We need to protect families and communities from the devastating potential of nuclear disasters and this bill simply does not do that.
Mr. Christian Ouellet (Brome—Missisquoi, BQ):
Madam Speaker, I congratulate my colleague on her speech, especially the part where she said we need to develop other forms of energy. The Bloc agrees completely.
She said several times that we would agree with the limit of $650 million and that we feel that it is enough. It seems to me that I was clear earlier, and I was speaking on behalf of the Bloc. We feel that this is not enough, but that it is better than $75 million. We need to vote in favour of the bill, because if we do not, then the $75 million limit will remain. We cannot change this amount in committee.
The member mentioned that Japan has unlimited liability. What does it mean when a company owns a nuclear facility and has unlimited liability? It means that if the damages run too high, the company will close up shop and go away. That is what it means. The government will be forced to pay. We have to be realistic. We are dealing with companies. The same is true of Germany. Companies can declare bankruptcy and stop paying. Governments are forced to pay.
So yes, we feel that it is not enough, but on the other hand, it is not necessarily true that other countries have found the ideal solution. In the United States, the limit, which is between $9 billion and $11 billion—it is not $10 billion, it varies—would not be enough in the event of an incident such as the member described earlier. She said that it would cost $3 trillion if there were a complication in Hamilton. How could an insurance company insure for that much money? That is my question.
Ms. Chris Charlton:
Madam Speaker, I do welcome the question. I think the member and I fundamentally agree that this bill, as it stands, and its predecessor with the lower limit of $75 million in liability, are wholly inadequate.
The member raised the question about what happens if there is a catastrophic nuclear accident where the costs are in the billions and trillions of dollars. He is quite right in pointing out that we ought to be concerned about the fact that companies will close up shop and Canadian taxpayers will be left with the bill for the cleanup. I think he is absolutely right about that.
That is one of the really disappointing parts of this bill. The government is proposing a solution that in fact only tinkers. It does not provide a comprehensive solution to the question of nuclear liability and, more important, the protection of Canadian citizens as we are contemplating nuclear accidents, be they minor or catastrophic.
That is the part of this debate we have essentially skimmed over by focusing on whether $75 million is enough or $650 million is enough.
We know from the recent debate about events at Chalk River, where we are now experiencing an urgent crisis with respect to the supply of medical isotopes that yes, in fact our nuclear facilities are in relative states of disrepair. We need to invest, we need to regulate and we need to ensure nuclear safety.
One of the things that is really troubling to me is that the nuclear safety inspector whom the government fired last year has now been replaced by a political appointee. That is a position that should not be political. We need an independent person in that position. We are not talking about any of those issues though; we are simply talking about whether the amount should be $75 million or $650 million.
Canadians deserve better. They deserve a more complete answer. For that reason, I do not think it is good enough to pick a number out of a hat, such as $650 million, which we know from international experience is not adequate, and say, “Good job. Our job here is done with respect to nuclear liability and compensation”.
Canadians deserve better. This House deserves better. We must give this issue much fuller attention.
Mr. Derek Lee (Scarborough—Rouge River, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, I just wanted to address what I thought was unnecessary fearmongering on the part of the hon. member and some of her colleagues.
In not being happy with the $650 million number, is there another number she might wish to posit that might be suitable for a disaster of the type she conjures up?
Ms. Chris Charlton:
Madam Speaker, I take some issue with the member suggesting that I am fearmongering.
I have a list of 81 nuclear accidents that are all documented. That is not fearmongering; that is trying to deal with the reality and trying to protect Canadians should such an eventuality happen here. Frankly, I think that is our responsibility.
With respect to the member's question about what is the appropriate amount, frankly the Conservative government has opted to go for the bare minimum. We should be aspiring to go with the best international standards, and those right now in Japan and in Europe are unlimited liability.