In nine days, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) will entertain public opinion on proposed refurbishments to Quebec’s only nuclear power plant, the Gentilly-2 plant, in Bécancour. Hydro-Québec has slated nearly $2 billion for work on the plant.
A coalition – including Greenpeace Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, and the Parti Québécois – is criticizing the proposal, claiming that the power plant is dangerous to the environment and human health, as well as being an unnecessary fiscal burden.
“Quebec has no need for the risks associated with rebuilding Gentilly,” said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, Nuclear Analyst for Greenpeace Canada.
Opened in 1982 outside Trois-Rivières, Gentilly-2 currently provides 3 per cent of Quebec’s electricity. Hyro-Québec’s planned refurbishments would replace the nuclear reactor inside the plant, which has been in use since it first opened.
According to Stensil, the CANDU reactor – the type of reactor used in all 22 nuclear reactors in Canada – is comprised of 380 “pressure tubes” that host the nuclear reactions. These tubes create heat, which is turned into steam and harvested by turbines to make electricity.
However, Stensil said the pipes were increasingly likely to bend or crack, considering that the pipes are over 25 years old and are in a highly irradiated environment.
“Your probability of accident is going up the longer they run this plant. … So they have to basically rebuild it; it’s a heart transplant,” he said.
According to Stensil, the principal reason for the steep price tag is the delicate and dangerous nature of the proposed refurbishments.
“It’s a highly radioactive environment; that’s one of the reasons it costs so much,” Stensil said. “You have a maximum dose [of radiation] that you’re allowed to have as a nuclear worker, so you can’t be in there very long. So it means you have to hire a lot of workers, or spend more money on really expensive robots, that also break.”
Hydro-Québec needs approval from the CNSC to begin the refurbishment project. The CNSC will hold a public hearing on April 13 and 14.
Aurèle Gervais, spokesperson for the CNSC, emphasized that the Commission’s responsibility is to protect the health of the workers, the public, and the environment.
“We listen to all information that is presented to the Commission, whether it be from CNSC staff, Hydro-Québec, and the public, and based on that information there is a decision made,” said Gervais. “Our role is to make sure that the work that is going to be carried out is done safely, to protect the workers, the public and the environment.”
Financial concerns are central to the argument against the refurbishment.
According to Karel Mayrand, Quebec director general for the David Suzuki Foundation, a similar refurbishment project in New Brunswick at a twin power plant, the Point Laperle project, is two years behind schedule and already $1 billion over the initial projected cost.
“I think [Gentilly-2] is a crazy idea, financially,” said Mayrand. “Hydro-Québec is telling us that they’re going to refurbish Gentilly for $2 billion. We could expect $3 billion, we could expect more than this.”
Gervais said the financial aspect of the refurbishment project was “not something that [the CNSC] take into consideration,” although Stensil questioned the impartiality of Canada’s federal nuclear power regulator.
“We have a lot of problems with the [CNSC],” he said.
Stensil described how, in 2008, the Harper government had fired CNSC president Linda Keen “for applying modern safety standards to reactors in Canada,” putting the independence of the CNSC into question.
He also said that he had acquired correspondences between Hydro-Québec and the CNSC from 2004, where Hydro-Québec told the CNSC that “the economic case for refurbishing for Gentilly was…weak.” Stensil said Hydro-Québec’s correspondences implied the company wanted the CNSC to “loosen the safety requirements so the project would be economical.”
“So here is a very important point: there’s a conflict of interest between safety and cost, and reducing the cost of Hydro-Québec means increasing the accident risks for Quebeckers,” said Stensil.
In a press conference on March 24, Hydro-Québec President Thierry Vandal said they were following developments in refurbishment projects at twin power plants at Point Laperle in New Brunswick and in South Korea, as well as at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The Daiichi plant in Japan has been struggling to prevent a meltdown in several reactors since the country was hit with a massive earthquake on March 11.
“We’re going to provide all the information that is required by the government to provide a thoughtful and informed decision on this very, very important project,” said Vandal.
Both Stensil and Mayrand attributed part of the survival of nuclear energy in Quebec and across Canada to an effective government lobbying effort. However, neither Stensil nor Mayrand could give a clear answer as to why Hydro-Québec is choosing to continue to rely on nuclear power, when less expensive and safer renewable alternatives exist.
Currently, the Nuclear Liability Act in Canada caps the maximum possible compensation to victims of a nuclear accident from the power company at $750 million. Stensil pointed to this act as evidence that those involved with nuclear power believe that there is the real possibility of an accident.
“The truth I think Canadians need to remember, to turn this around – the industry believes nuclear accidents are a realistic possibility in Canada. … So while they’re claiming publicly their reactors are perfectly safe, their accountants and their investors know accidents are a realistic possibility,” said Stensil.
“I trust what their investors say, and I’m skeptical of their public [statements], and I think everyone else should be too,” he continued.
Opponents to refurbishment also point out that the Gentilly-2 provides such a small amount of electricity to the province that a surplus in electricity makes its contribution optional.
“One thing that’s notable is the state of Vermont voted to shut down their one reactor, Vermont Yankee, last year, and Quebec has recently signed a deal to export power to them. So we have the power,” said Stensil.
Mayrand also identified multiple health risks associated with Gentilly-2.
“We know that there is radioactive contamination happening, and it’s allowed under Canadian law,” said Mayrand. “In Canada, the regulation for the level of radioactivity contained is 7,000 becquerels per litre, and in the U.S. it’s 700…and in Europe it’s 150.”
“Our regulations on what is allowed in terms of radioactive contaminants in the environment is much higher here than elsewhere,” she continued. “So basically, we have this false ceiling of security, but it may not be as secure and as healthy as some people would like us to believe.”
—With files from Mari Galloway