Ep 220: Michael Binder - Former CEO, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
Math and Government (0:48)
(0:48-25:25) Michael explains how his background in math led him to a career in the
Q. How did you come to the nuclear industry?
A. (0:48) Dr. Michael Binder is the Former Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Nuclear
Safety Commission. He got his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Alberta and
was on an academic track, but then got talked into joining the Defense Research Board. During
that time period -- the Vietnam War, the Warsaw Pact, etc. -- joining the military held little
appeal, but the Defense Research Board’s job was war games. Michael’s job to use a
simulation to figure out how many planes were needed in Europe to stop a Warsaw Pact attack.
He was recruited due to his mathematical models and methodology during his time at university.
From there he was recruited into a brand-new department called Urban Affairs trying to simulate
urbanization in Canada based on availability of jobs and workers. From there he transferred to
development government owned waterfront properties at Canada Mortgage and Housing.
Q. What were your roles?
A. (3:46) It was incremental, but Michael’s career slowly pushed him into government. He was
always on the science and innovation side of things, but he’s not a nuclear specialist. But he
has spent a lot of time trying to understand policy and regulation and learn how the government
functions. Eventually he spent 20 years at the Department of Communication (later known as
Industry Canada) where he was ‘Mr. Telecom.’
Q. This was when the telecom industry was going through a huge transformation.
A. (5:00) Michael was working at the Department of Communication during 1985, when cell
phones were released. It was a huge change that happened not that long ago. Then in 1989
email came out and the Internet became a reality in 1995 with www. Michael says they were
lucky because they were able to anticipate some of the revolution by meeting with leaders within
the rising technology industries.
Regulating Nuclear (25:26)
(25:26-38:08) Michael explains the regulatory review process as it applies to domestic projects
and international technologies approved abroad.
Q. If a new nuclear site were to open, how difficult would it be to get the environmental impact
A. (25:26) The Canadian government just came out with a new bill rewriting the environmental
assessment requirements. It’s hugely controversial, according to Michael. Some people think it
will be very difficult to achieve approval. But for Michael, the real struggle is going to be finding
community willing to house a nuclear site. He thinks rural communities should be the poster
child for Canadian nuclear technology, because remote areas burn a lot of diesel, which is
expenses and pollutes the environment and sometimes has to be flown in. But the community
has to agree.
Q. Instead of building at new locations, why not add smaller units next to bigger units?
A. (27:10) Bret says that every community that has nuclear loves nuclear. Michael agrees, but is
constantly left asking ‘where is their application? Send me your application.’
Q. Why are companies struggling to get through the vendor design review process?
A. (28:25) The design review application is separate from the license application process. The
license application will normally come from the utility company. But Michael thinks vendors are
not yet comfortable with the license application process.
Q. What are vendors so worried about during the application process? Why is it so expensive?
A. (29:28) Michael thinks most of them want a utility behind them for financial reasons. The
application is as fast as the applicant can deliver the materials to the Commission. The process
is not overly expensive. For the design review process, the Commission only charges for staff
time. Normally utilities and vendors would approach the regulator together.
Nuclear in China (38:09)
(38:09-45:00) Michael explains Chinese advancements in nuclear technology in comparison to
North American innovation.
Q. Do utilities in Canada invest in infrastructure project abroad?
A. (38:09) SNC-Lavalin sells CANDU reactors around the world, but they’re not a utility. But only
China, Russia, and Korea do this. However, the problem with building infrastructure in China is
that the Chinese government invites companies in, but in return ask to be educated on the
subject be that telecommunications or nuclear. Once China understand the product, they’re able
to export it around the world. Bret personally is okay with China taking over the nuclear industry
if it means the world would be saved from climate change, but he also believes the US or
Canada could instead export nuclear technology.
Q. Why isn’t the US or Canada more ambitious with exporting nuclear technology?
A. (42:13) The US and Canada are the countries in which innovation occurs, according to
Michael. To continue to foster that competition and innovation, the US and Canada need to sell
nuclear abroad, otherwise they become consumers of someone else’s products. Taking new,
innovative designs comes with higher risks but also higher rewards at market.
Public Perceptions of Nuclear (45:00)
(45:00-59:49) Michael describes public perceptions around nuclear and the difficulty in creating
Q. Why is it so difficult to get politicians to support nuclear?
A. (45:00) Michael says they’re afraid of nuclear, built up by perceptions of war and mushroom
clouds. There is a lot of fear of nuclear in the public, even in Ontario, where the entire province
got rid of coal and nuclear power makes up more than 60% of the electricity.
Q. What do you think about safe levels of radiation?
A. (54:06) Some people believe that no amount of radiation, no matter how small, is safe. Bret
instead points out alternative idea some researchers are working on small levels of radiation are
good for you. However, for the last few decades the nuclear industry has been selling safety
equipment and radiation level protection services. The industry today does not sell nuclear
power plants, they sell radiation protection, according to Bret. The nuclear industry makes its
money off of selling fear; Bret thinks it effectively died in 1980.
Innovation in Nuclear (59:50)
(59:50-1:09:29) Michael speaks about his time as a regulator and why he stayed in the nuclear
field for so many years.
Q. How did you move from telecoms to nuclear regulation?
A. (1:03:00) Michael was tapped to help the Commission because of his regulatory background.
Instead of only staying six months, he stayed for years because he found nuclear fascinating to
be back in the hard sciences and technology. He says it was his goal to improve the regulatory
process that had included spending millions of dollars sending out print mailings and using
carbon copies. Michael says sometimes the nuclear community is allergic to innovation because
the nuclear technology is so vastly complicated and delicate. It is only more recently that
nuclear technology has started to migrate to digital over the originally preferred analog. This
caused huge international issues trying to upgrade 30 to 40-year-old technology, especially
since it was still working. Michael calls this complacency, ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken,’ a point
with which he disagrees.
Q. Do you think the nuclear can change its culture to become more innovative?
A. (1:07:52) Before Fukushima happened there were a lot of plans to build new nuclear plants.
Bret points out the 2008 Great Recession and economic crisis also played a role. Michael it
says it was a combination of the two factors that lead to a lack of new nuclear sites. Now, he
thinks that unless advanced small modular reactors take off, nuclear is dead. Nuclear today
needs to have a completely different structure and financing to succeed.
Safety Planning and Evacuations (1:09:30)
(1:09:30-1:19:08) Michael and Bret discuss the cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima as
compared to evacuation plans for Pickering in Ontario.
Q. Let’s talk about the ‘doomsday scenario. If Fukushima proved the worst thing that can
happen to a light water is no one dies, why is nuclear energy still considered so dangerous?
A. (1:09:39) Pickering, for example, is right in the middle of downtown Toronto. The doomsday
scenario there is different than at Fukushima. Bret argues that the off-site radiation from
Fukushima could probably not have hurt anyone outside of the fence. Michael says that was a
huge debate, but all safety plans for Pickering will involve evacuation zones of various sizes.
Q. Why was there so much debate?
A. (1:13:30) Bret argues that light water reactors cannot have the same disbursement affect that
happened at Chernobyl, so why is there so much debate over radiological hazards. Even at
Chernobyl, if we had known not to let children drink the local cow milks or given them iodine
pills, no one would have gotten hurt. However, Michael explains that at Fukushima, due to a
poorly designed nuclear reactor, problems persisted after the disaster. Regulators are very
concerned about plumes, which is where evacuation entered into the equation. Bret thinks
evacuations should be off the table because they kill people. According to him, a thousand
elderly people died due to the evacuation. Michael says that due to its location, Pickering has to
have an evacuation plan. For example, Pickering once evacuated because a truck of a train
came off the track and released fumes. The whole community had to evacuate because of an
abundance of precaution. In the future, plumes will probably disperse and there would be no
real serious injuries. Nevertheless, you evacuate. Michael says evacuation plans are set in
place to make sure that people are convinced that you did everything you could in a worst-case