Interview with Karen Owen-Whitred, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
In this issue, Dave continues his interview series by talking with Karen Owen-Whitred, the new director general of the Directorate of Nuclear Substances Regulation (DNSR) at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). She tells him about everything from her work history to her latest plans for DNSR. Will they continue to do remote inspections even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over? Keep reading . . .
Dave Niven: Tell us a little bit about yourself—anything you’d like to share about your work experience, background, or some lockdown survival tips you’ve picked up during the last few months!
Karen Owen-Whitred: I have been with the CNSC for just over 18 years, since 2002. I have degrees in engineering physics and public policy, which were a good foundation for the early parts of my career in the field of international safeguards.
Later I moved to the regulatory framework group, where I worked on the development and publication of regulatory documents (REGDOCs) and regulations. That led me to the CNSC’s Transport Licensing and Strategic Support Division, which is where I spent the last two years before becoming the director general of the DNSR in June 2020.
Taking on this new challenge during a global pandemic was certainly a unique experience! I definitely miss interacting with my friends and colleagues in person, and my two boys (ages nine and seven) occasionally make an appearance during my Zoom calls. But overall, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the type of job where I could continue working remotely almost uninterrupted during this difficult time.
Dave: You’ve been working at the CNSC for a long time. What were some of the things that attracted you when you first applied there, and what are some of the main reasons you still enjoy working there?
Karen: I have always enjoyed the size of the CNSC—it’s a big enough organization that there’s always something new or interesting to work on, which I’ve found as I’ve moved around to different positions. On the other hand, it’s small enough that I can get to know most of my co-workers, and I’ve always found there to be a strong emphasis on work–life balance.
Dave: What experiences or best practices from the Safeguards Division or the Regulatory Framework Division have you been able to bring over to DNSR?
Karen: Working in international safeguards gave me an excellent foundation in mediation and interpersonal relations. The CNSC acts as somewhat of a mediator between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Canadian licensees, so I learned a lot about looking at an issue from different sides.
As part of my regulatory framework experience, I had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of files from across a range of areas within the CNSC (Indigenous engagement, safety culture, radiation protection, fitness for duty, etc.), which allowed me to get a sense of the “big picture.” It also gave me experience assessing the implications of regulatory actions and decisions.
Dave: Due to the pandemic, the CNSC inspectors have begun performing remote inspections. What are some of the tips you have to share with licensees if they’re scheduled for a remote inspection? Do you predict that any parts of the remote inspection could continue even after the pandemic?
Karen: Based on our experience thus far, here are some tips for licensees in preparing for a CNSC remote inspection:
- Respect the timelines for document submission to the inspector. If you need more time, be up front about it as soon as possible.
- Only provide the inspector the information they requested; do not flood them with unnecessary documents. This will save time for you and for us!
- Be aware of document security—never send security-related information (e.g., exact location of nuclear substances, security plans, etc.) or personal information (e.g., social insurance numbers, personal addresses, dates of birth, etc.) by email. The CNSC is working on providing licensees with more guidance on this matter.
Although it’s impossible to predict exactly how things will look after the pandemic, I am confident remote inspections will continue to form some part of our compliance oversight. In some specific cases, we’ve found that remote inspections are more efficient than those conducted on site. That being said, remote inspections cannot replace on-site inspections completely; there are many circumstances in which remote access can’t compare with having an inspector on site. The key going forward will be in finding the right balance between these two options.
Dave: You’ve mentioned that one of your priorities for the directorate is to assess the effectiveness of your communication with licensees. What are some of the other things you’d like to accomplish in the next few years?
Karen: It should come as no surprise that my immediate priority as director general of DNSR is to establish a new approach for compliance oversight under pandemic conditions. The CNSC has done a lot of work in recent months to develop methodologies for remote inspections, as well as reinstating on-site inspections under new protocols that prioritize staff and licensee health and safety.
As noted, we’re looking closely at ways of improving our communication with licensees, including possible changes to our website and developing ideas for engaging with stakeholders in a more accessible way. On that note, I would draw readers’ attention to the October issue of the DNSR Digest, in which we introduced our new mobile app for users of nuclear substances and radiation devices. This app was conceived of and developed in-house by two DNSR staff members and is a great example of leveraging technology to better connect with our licensees.
Last but not least, it’s really important for me as director general to do everything I can to support the mental health of my staff during these difficult times. As we head into the winter and as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Canada, it’s more important than ever to come together as a team and to be kind to ourselves and to each other.