As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled across the country early this spring, shutting down airlines, retailers and legislatures, Canada’s nuclear industry rapidly put in place business contingency plans developed nearly 20 years ago after the SARS epidemic.
And, by all accounts, they worked.
Indeed, key industry players had long ago socked away tons of personal protective equipment (PPE) and developed “what-if” disaster plans that helped the country’s nuclear power plants, uranium mines, research reactors, and nuclear waste disposal sites roll with the pandemic punch.
And yet, as the pandemic shut down one industry after another this spring, senior staff at the country’s nuclear industry regulator worried that their ability and the ability of those they regulate to guarantee the safety of Canadians might have been put at risk.
“The health and safety of Canadians may appear to be compromised if [CNSC] operations do not take place as expected by Canadians,” said an 11-page memo prepared on April 14 titled “Identification of COVID-19 Related Risks.” A copy of that memo and other CNSC documents was obtained by Global News through federal access-to-information requests.
Those memos detail how senior staff at the country’s industry regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), immediately began daily meetings, with each participant joining in from home offices or other remote locations. CNSC staff were also in constant contact with its licensees — operators of nuclear facilities like Ontario Power Generation or Saskatoon-based uranium miner Cameco.
The April memo identified dozens of risks COVID-19 the CNSC was worried about. And yet, by June, the regulator was convinced that the industry had not only survived the crisis but, in some respects, had thrived during the pandemic.
“I think our licensees have actually done a very splendid job themselves in delivering, whatever business they’re in, in a very safe manner,” CNSC CEO Rumina Velshi said in an interview.
That assessment was confirmed in interviews with unions representing workers at nuclear facilities and with nuclear industry operators.
“There was a lot of concern raised [then] across the nuclear industry about the impact that could have on the industry,” said Bob Walker, national director of the Canadian Nuclear Workers Council.
The Canadian Nuclear Workers Council is an umbrella organization of unions that represent workers in the industry in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick.
The key determinant for success appears to have been plans put in place after the SARS crisis of 2002-2004. While that crisis was not as severe as the current COVID-19 crisis, the industry recognized that a pandemic could pose a serious threat to all kinds of operations involving nuclear power generation, nuclear research, isotope production, nuclear waste management and to the mining and refining of uranium, the fuel used in most nuclear applications.
Canada reported just 251 cases and 44 deaths from SARS but the outbreak was enough of a warning that the industry developed and maintained plans and resources that they would draw on this spring when COVID-19 hit.
“It really came about after SARS that [there was] a need for something like that which would be required if there was a power outage, pandemic or any other catastrophe,” said Velshi.
But planning was not enough, industry and union officials said in several interviews.
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The key factor for the industry was getting employees to buy into the new operational realities brought on by COVID-19. While there were some conflicts over scheduling or the pace of return-to-work plans, union representatives say that, by and large, employers in the industry avoided confrontation with employee groups as they addressed the problem.
“You need to talk to your workers, talk to your worker reps and collaborate,” said Walker. “If you don’t, you’re not going to be successful. So it took some very strong collaboration to get people back to work safely.
“And those pandemic plans have been kept up to date as we’ve as we move forward,” said Walker. “So those plans are already there. They’re already in place.”
Indeed, Ontario Power Generation had done such a good job maintaining a stockpile of personal protective equipment that it initially created more than a decade ago in response to SARS that it has been able to donate more than 1 million pieces of PPE — masks, suits, face shields — from some of its stockpile to hospitals and other front-line workers.
“We had a warehouse full of this stuff,” said Neal Kelly, OPG’s media relations director. “We’d kept our supplies up.”
The CNSC has 869 employees most of whom normally work out of a secure facility in a downtown Ottawa office building. But those employees — like most government employees — were told to work from home when the pandemic hit.
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The documents obtained by Global News show that the CNSC was concerned about maintaining the security of the nuclear files they had been trusted with but were also concerned about the ability of the federal government’s information technology system to be able to support nearly 900 employees working from remote locations.
Those concerns, voiced in memos in April, were largely assuaged by July.
“Our priority … was we need to make sure we’re protecting Canadians and the environment,” Velshi said, “and what are those critical facilities and activities that we need to focus our efforts on.”
The CNSC says there have been no reports of any safety incidents, unsafe conditions or other emergencies at any of its licensees.
In fact, one licensee — Ontario Power Generation — actually hit some remarkable operational milestones during and despite the pandemic. At OPG’s Darlington power station near Toronto, a reactor known as Unit Two completed a decade-long refurbishment and was re-connected to Ontario’s power grid. And while that was happening, the Unit One reactor at Darlington set a North American record on July 9 for 895 days of continuous operation without having to be shut down for maintenance or repair.
“That is a remarkable feat given the challenging situation that we’re in,” said Velshi.
The CNSC has had to modify its inspection regime for its licensees given physical distancing guidelines. But it says that licensees have worked with the regulator to maintain an appropriate oversight regime.
“We could log into their different databases to see what the condition of the stations and their own internal inspections were,” said Velshi. “If we wanted photographs or videos of the condition of things, they would very readily provide that.”
The CNSC memos provided to Global News indicate that Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Reagan and “the centre” — a term used by bureaucrats to refer to the Prime Minister’s Office — were kept up to speed about the nuclear industry’s response to COVID-19.
An assessment prepared by the CNSC in early June ran through the situation in each industry segment.
No nuclear power plant operator “encountered any difficulty with maintaining a minimum shift complement,” CNSC staff concluded.
“All research reactors have put in place business continuity plans and are currently in operation, with all non-critical staff working from home.”
In early April, Cameco safely suspended its fuel conversion and refinery operations at Port Hope, Ont., and Blind River, Ont., respectively but was able to safely re-start operations by mid-May.
Cameco’s uranium mining operation at Cigar Lake and Urano Inc.’s McClean Lake mill, both in northern Saskatchewan, “were slowly brought to safe shutdown state.” On July 29, both firms announced plans to restart mining and milling operations at those facilities later this month.
Walker said that because Canada’s nuclear industry is one of Canada’s most heavily unionized industrial sectors, workers’ advocates are significant contributors to workplace safety.
“We had the preparations from SARS for pandemic planning, a strong regulator, we’ve got strong unions and it’s in the employers’ interest in the nuclear industry to make sure they’re operating safely.”
Velshi said the industry’s reaction to COVID-19 is also a validation of Canada’s regulatory regime.
“What we have been able to demonstrate is even during a major crisis like that, we have a very solid regulatory framework that allows our licensees to carry on with their business,” Velshi said. “And do it safely.”
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Coronavirus numbers are surging in Canada. But who’s getting sick and why? – Global News
As Canada grapples with rising novel coronavirus numbers, experts say mounting evidence points to young people as the driving force behind the spike in cases.
The data doesn’t lie. The latest available data from the Public Health Agency of Canada showed 56.6 per cent of those who tested positive for the virus were younger than 50 years old.
People aged 20-29 accounted for “the largest proportion of cases,” the agency said in its weekly epidemiology report.
“Incidence rates in those 20 to 39 years of age remain consistently higher compared to all other age groups.”
The agency wrote this could be due to having to return to work, where that age bracket makes up a majority of the service industry, as well as reduced social distancing among young people or general “fatigue with physical distancing and other public health measures.”
“This is not a surprise,” said Colin Furness, an epidemiologist with the University of Toronto. “That’s the group that has suffered socially the most in a lot of ways.”
Furness said he’d noticed trends among servers, but that young people may have also become complacent to COVID-19 measures in trying to “make the most” of the end of their summers.
With restaurants, bars, smaller workplaces, universities and other schools reopened, there is more opportunity for youth to get sick, he said. But when it comes to returning to work, for businesses able to work remotely Furness said “it’s better to stay put.”
While the PHAC noted most confirmed diagnoses reported in schools and daycares were individual cases, rather than examples of community transmission, the agency said confirmed infections have been increasing since August.
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Furness said going back to school was “very important” for children’s mental health, and would be economically beneficial for parents — “predominantly women who then get excluded from their jobs.”
From an infection control standpoint, Furness said it was more likely that schools were going to reflect how the pandemic had been affecting each school’s community.
He also said some provinces should have either chosen to reopen bars or schools — but not both.
“We can do a lot,” he said. “We just can’t do it all at the same time.”
“It’s risky to open schools, so we should be doing something to compensate for that.”
Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist with EPI Research Inc., said it was inevitable that — even in Canada, where community spread is under control in most provinces — returning to school would at least in some part drive up COVID-19 cases.
“Once you put people together in a room for a long period of time, there’s opportunity for infection to spread,” she said.
Carr said the surging numbers may look daunting, but are actually on par with Health Canada’s projections, which estimated the country would see a fall peak in September.
This is important, she said, as according to Health Canada, the country should expect to see a rise in diagnoses, but low rates of hospitalizations or deaths due to the age demographic making up the majority of people getting sick.
The challenge, said Carr, is what she called an “epidemiological lag.”
“In a week or two, will we see an increase in outcomes such as hospitalizations and deaths? That’s what we want to avoid, because this increase in cases (can lead) to infection within our vulnerable residents,” she said.
Experts warned Canadians may not have seen the end of surging cases.
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Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Tuesday it would be difficult for him to declare whether or not the country was in the midst of its second wave of the virus.
“Canada is a big country. All regions are different,” he said, adding that officials have confirmed a second wave in Ottawa.
Dr. Andrew Morris, infectious disease physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said the influx in cases the country was seeing now “will probably go on steroids in the next couple of weeks — unless something is drastically done.”
“We will see increasing and accelerated growth over the next couple of weeks despite any measures that the government may do over the next week,” he said, identifying initial provincial challenges with testing, contact tracing and isolating patients as factors leading up to rising numbers.
On whether the country was prepared for a second wave, Morris said: “Not a chance.”
In order to successfully navigate through a second wave, Morris said federal and provincial governments were going to need to step up their testing, open more COVID-19 assessment centres and stock up on ventilators and personal protective equipment.
“Without a proper surveillance and screening strategy, it makes it very difficult for us to properly use our testing capacities,” he said.
“If you don’t have one of the fundamental aspects which is testing and that is both collecting the tests, assessment centre abilities and lab capacity… then you’re in trouble,” he said.
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
'BlueLeaks' data breach involved 38 Canadian police forces – CBC.ca
Confidential law enforcement data belonging to 38 Canadian police agencies has been exposed by a group of so-called hacktivists targeting police in the U.S., Radio-Canada has learned.
The group Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets) published thousands of documents amounting to 269 gigabytes online in June. Members of the group say the documents were obtained from members of the hacker collective Anonymous.
The leak came from cyberattacks on American police agencies or their suppliers. Information from police services across the U.S., including emails, training notes and expense reports, was published online.
The RCMP has confirmed it was one of the agencies affected by the leak. In a statement, the RCMP said the National Cybercrime Coordination Unit (NC3) and RCMP cyber intelligence led an investigation to determine the effect of the leak on various RCMP jurisdictions and other Canadian police agencies.
‘No secret information,’ RCMP says
The leaked information involving Canadian law enforcement did not have a major impact on sensitive operations and was generally related to “training, administration and unclassified material which is non-sensitive in nature,” the RCMP said in a statement.
“We found that there was no secret information that was disclosed,” said Insp. Daniel Côté, the officer in charge of NC3. “All the information that was online was administrative in nature.”
The RCMP declined to identify the other Canadian police agencies involved, “for privacy and operational reasons.”
But Steve Waterhouse, a cybersecurity expert and former cybersecurity officer for the Department of National Defence, argued even administrative data can be damaging if it gets into the wrong hands.
“It could be emails or phone numbers of police officers in that stash of information, and they can sell it or use it to physically harm or harass police officers’ families,” Waterhouse said.
Privacy commissioner notified 3 months later
The RCMP said it takes any privacy breach seriously and that past and current employees involved in the breach are being notified.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada received a report from the RCMP about the leak on Sept. 18, almost three months after it occurred.
In a statement, the office said it is reviewing the report and said the incident raises serious concerns, “given the sensitivity of the information involved.”
Canadians' grocery bills are increasing; pandemic to accelerate the trend: report – CTV News
Canadians who have suspected their grocery bills have been rising over the years aren’t imagining it, according to a new report that found the price of food has been steadily increasing in the last decade – and the COVID-19 pandemic is only accelerating this trend.
According to the report, which was released on Tuesday by Dalhousie University’s Agri-food Analytics Lab, the price of a typical grocery basket has increased by approximately 240 per cent since 2000.
While it’s expected the price of food will go up because of inflation, Sylvain Charlebois, a professor and senior director of the lab, said his team wanted to see how the food price index compared with the general inflation index or Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past 20 years.
“The point of the report is to show that really over the last 10 years, at least, the food inflation rate has outpaced the general inflation rate,” he explained during a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Tuesday.
The report found that the overall cost of other products and services in the economy didn’t increase as much as food did during this time period.
Charlebois said the rising cost of food is actually the result of the agri-food industry playing “catch up” after a generation of discounted products.
“North America has been the realm of discounted food for quite some time. We are just coming out of an era in which we have been bent on buying the cheapest food products,” the report stated. “But things are different now.”
The researchers said consumers have more choice than ever now and because of that, they expect more innovation and quality when it comes to their food.
“There is certainly a price to pay for that. As a result, the industry has been catching up to our expectations by managing higher costs and passing some of the increases onto us,” the report said.
Charlebois said he expects the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the pace of these food price increases because operation costs have gone up during the health emergency.
“We actually are expecting the average household in Canada to spend not just 9.1 per cent of their budget, but maybe 10.5, perhaps even 11 per cent,” he said.
While the report found that every province and territory have had their consumer price indices outstripped by the food price index, some regions have seen more of a disparity than others.
Charlebois said households in Eastern Canada have had to spend more of their budgets on food than in other areas due to a lack of regionally based food processing and the higher logistical costs of serving some remote markets.
New Brunswick saw the biggest gap between the food price index and the general price index at 25.8 points, followed by Quebec (23.1 per cent), and Nova Scotia (21.3 per cent).
“It is especially in the last decade that the gap between the two indices has widened,” the report said.
To avoid food insecurity from the rising costs, Charlebois said he would like to see governments invest in controlled environment agriculture, greenhouses to produce food all year round, and increases in the processing capacity in the most affected regions.
SUGAR, PEANUT BUTTER REMAIN AFFORDABLE
While the rising cost of food may be unwelcome news for most Canadians, Charlebois said there are still several food items that appear to be impervious to the increases.
According to Statistics Canada, white sugar is almost the same price as it was 20 years ago in 2000 at $2.40 per two kilograms.
“Although there are only three sugar producers in Canada that control the market, Redpath, Lantic and Rogers in the West, the price of sugar has barely changed in the last two decades,” the report said.
Flour, too, has also remained fairly cheap, Charlebois said, with only a 38 per cent increase over the past two decades.
There has been even less of an increase in price for peanut butter over the years, according to Charlebois. He said peanut butter is only 5 per cent more expensive now than it was in 2000.
“I think it has a lot to do with competition,” he said. “The fact that there are a lot more brands and it’s been a little bit more competitive.”
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