October 2008: An Unbefitting Retrofit

Quebec government flouts its own policies on nuclear power
October 1, 2008

While the rest of the world was focused on the Beijing Olympics last summer, the Quebec government was engaged in a risky political manoeuvre in the region of Bécancour (population 11,051), 125 km northeast of Montreal.

On August 19, the government and Hydro-Quebec announced their decision to refurbish Quebec’s only operational nuclear reactor, Gentilly-2, at a proposed cost of $1.9 billion.

A broad-based coalition of over 50 public interest and environmental groups had previously worked for months to raise public awareness and rally support to have this facility closed. Major Quebec newspapers published articles which detailed the coalition’s case against a costly and potentially dangerous retrofitting exercise. Several spokespersons from groups opposing nuclear power were not allowed into the press conference, and those who did get in were not allowed to ask questions.

Politically, Quebecers lean toward the “no, not here” side when it comes to nuclear energy. A recent Angus Reid poll showed that the people of Quebec were the “least enthusiastic” about nuclear power–with 62% opposing the construction of new power plants. In 1978, Quebec declared a moratorium against future nuclear installations. Quebec also has a policy that prohibits long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste in the province. The province’s environmental agency, Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement, had called, in 2005, for public disclosure of Gentilly-2 cost estimates and plans for radioactive waste disposal before further decisions would be made.

The government made its next move a few days later. On August 25, Premier Jean Charest and representatives from Renewable Energy Corp (REC), a Norwegian solar panel manufacturer, announced its decision to situate a $1.2 billion silicon materials (used to make solar panels and semi-conductors) manufacturing plant in an industrial park right next to the nuclear reactor. Much more widely reported outside Quebec than the decision on Gentilly-2, it was described as a huge economic win for Quebec, scoring plenty of PR points for the government. There will be at least 300 permanent jobs created for the region, and up to 1,000 more during the construction phase.

The deal is based on a 20-year power contract in which Hydro-Quebec will allocate a block of 95 megawatts of electricity to the plant. Access to “stable electricity supply based on long-term, predictable pricing” was the key consideration in choosing a location for the plant. Production would start in 2012, the same year (coincidentally?) that Gentilly-2 is scheduled to return to post-retrofit service.

REC says it is “committed to limit[ing] the environmental impact of producing solar cells and panels, and therefore prefers an electricity supply based on (non-carbon) renewable energy sources.” If REC is confident that the electrical network is stable without nuclear power (and they will have done their homework), the Quebec government’s enthusiasm for a politically risky nuclear retrofit doesn’t seem to fit the pattern.

Members of the coalition argue that Gentilly-2 will make no difference at all to network stability. They point out that Quebec’s electrical surplus already exceeds G-2’s meagre output. The facility provides only 2.5% of the province’s electrical power.

Critics dispute the claim that it will be a source of cheap power. The quoted 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour is not supported by any evidence. They are asking for an external audit of Hydro-Quebec’s financial planning related to G-2.

The 25-year-old reactor cannot possibly be brought up to the newer safety standards required by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, opponents say, without major design changes that would drive the cost of refurbishment much higher.

The inventory of high-level radioactive waste stored on-site—2,500 tonnes—will grow by 2.3 tonnes for every week of continued operation. There is no long-term storage plan in sight.

In addition, according to a news release from the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, the facility releases 90 different varieties of radioactive poisons daily into the air and water surrounding the facility, including cancer-causing tritium which has elevated the radioactivity in local drinking water to levels that would be illegal in California.

As soon as the refurbishment was announced, the government was accused of a cover-up. On August 19, the president of Hydro-Quebec said that some contracts for work on the refurbishment had already been signed and money had already been committed, despite the government’s previous claim that a decision had not yet been made.

“Hydro-Quebec wants to cheat by building a new reactor inside the shell of an old reactor. This should not be allowed,” said André Bélisle, president of the AQPLA, a Quebec association fighting atmospheric pollution, referring to the moratorium in place.

Retrofitting Gentilly-2 seems to fly in the face of public policy and public sentiment on nuclear energy in Quebec. The coalition is demanding that the decision to refurbish the plant be reversed and that future decisions on what to do about nuclear power in Quebec be based on a wide-ranging form of public consultation.

This story is sure to be continued... Une histoire à suivre.

(Marita Moll is a researcher, freelance writer, and a CCPA Research Associate.)