Gentilly-2 : They Have the Plant, We Have the Power

Monday 22 September 2008, by Emmanuel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Hydro-Quebec is going ahead with its refurbishment of the Gentilly-2 nuclear power station. There is, however, resistance to the project from those who want nuclear energy to be a thing of the past.

Michel Fugère of Mouvement Vert Mauricie is leading the opposition to Quebec’s only nuclear power station. “For a long time Hydro-Quebec and the Charest government have wanted to extend its life.” A decision with such wide-reaching consequences for society should not be made behind closed doors, “since we are a democracy, we demand a debate of the matter at [Quebec’s] national assembly. I want citizens to be informed of the risks associated with this project that will have an impact on generations to come- not only on their environment or their health, but their wallets too.”

Thomas Mulcair, the former Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks in Jean Charest’s cabinet, and current Member of Parliament for the New Democrats, believes Stephen Harper is pushing this project, “the Conservatives want to relaunch nuclear power in Canada. Whether it is in Quebec, Ontario or Alberta, where the energy could be used to extract oil from the tar sands.

According to the Outremont MP, the only way to stop the project is through a sustained, organized oppo-sition that brings a wide range of community groups together, such as the one that developed against the Suroit natural gas power plant in 2004. He also states that political parties have a large role to play, “the ADQ will support the project, Quebec Solidarity is against it, but they are not represented at the national assembly… that just leaves the Parti Quebecois.”

Michel Fugère is also trying to garner the support of celebrities, especially artists, in order to raise the profile of the movement, “we now have Roy Dupuis and Diane Dufresne.”

Laure Waridel, founder of Équiterre, has also helped to galvanize resistance, “everyone I met at the Francofolies said yes, that we have to mobilize and that we have to fight. The refurbishment of Gentilly-2 is the wrong decision. We are in the 21st century, we know the horrible effects of nuclear power.” Nor does she understand the position of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, who supports the project as it will protect 800 jobs. Instead, she feels they should focus on the wellbeing of their workers, noting that by investing in renewable energy it would easily create as many jobs...”

The problems of Nuclear Energy:

The groups opposed to the refurbishment of Gentilly-2 note that the system regulating the disposal of nuclear waste is incoherent. “We tolerate the production of nuclear waste but we don’t take responsibility for its long term management,” laments Mr. Fugère. In 2005, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) stated that, “more than nuclear energy, Gentilly-2 generates a large volume of nuclear waste that, as of yet, has no long-term strategy for its disposal,” and so, “25 more years of production will only serve to increase this volume.” Ecologists have underlined the fact that neither the government of Quebec nor Hydro-Quebec have responded to the BAPE’s concerns.

“Batches of nuclear waste are put in pools for seven years and are then warehoused near the power station. It is more dangerous than the reactor itself. It is not safe in case of an earthquake, explosion, or terrorist attack,” says Mouvement Vert Mauricie’s leader.

The use of Candu reactors is also a cause for concern. “The Americans don’t use them because they aren’t reliable and the Ontario plants, such as Chalk River, have had a lot of difficulties with them,” adds Fugère. The federal agency responsible for developing nuclear reactors, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, is acutely aware of this, having suffered numerous setbacks in the development of a new generation of reactors. Shawn-Patrick Stencil of Greenpeace believes that due to their lack of success in constructing new reactors, the agency is beginning to specialize in the refurbishment of old ones. As a means to maintain international credibility- especially in China, which has purchased Candu reactors- Greenpeace’s spokesman contends that Ottawa is putting all of its weight behind the Gentilly-2 project.

Enormous costs

Hydro-Quebec estimates that it will cost CAD $1.9 billion to get Gentilly-2 running. In 2002, the estimate was $845 million. Still the ecologists maintain that the government is underestimating the costs in order to facilitate acceptance of the project. “It is at least $2 billion,” states Mr. Stencil. He adds that Hydro Quebec has not factored in the new norms mandated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Besides, “refurbishment costs are rising everywhere,” he adds before citing the spiraling bills in Pickering, Ontario and Pointe Lepreau, New Brunswick as cases in point. Those against the Gentilly-2 refurbishment are asking for Hydro-Quebec’s cost estimates to be made public, in line with the recommendation of the BAPE. They are also demanding an audit of the non-financial costs.

Is it worth it?

Quebec is in the enviable position of not having to depend upon nuclear power. The Gentilly-2 facility accounts for a mere 3% of the electricity produced by Hydro-Quebec. For Thomas Mulcair, “there is no valid argument for prolonging the life of the plant.” He believes there are other options, “from an energy security standpoint, it is true that it is important to have power stations close to population centres to prevent power cuts in case there are problems with the high-tension lines up north. But we have Becancour, which was built for exactly that reason.”

According to Greenpeace, “if we invest all the money that will go to Gentilly-2 in wind power, we will get the same number of megawatts (675MW) without the health and safety risks.”

Environmentalists and other civil society groups will be pressing hard for a debate on these questions this autumn. Time is in short supply, however, as Gentilly-2 will be wound down in December 2010. The Charest government and Hydro-Quebec are all too aware of the time constraints- will they be able to use this deadline in order to short-circuit the debate?

Emmanuel Martinez is the editor-in-chief of Alternatives le Journal.

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