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by Gordon Edwards, Ph.D.
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
(Regroupement pour la surveillance du nucleaire)

published in French translation by La Galere,
vol 6 no 3 march-april 2008: one of several articles
in the special issue focused on the Gentilly-2 reactor

When I arrived in Montreal in 1974, Hydro-Quebec was planning to build 30 nuclear power plants along the St-Lawrence River. Sites were already being selected for them.

Quebec’s first nuclear reactor, Gentilly-1, started operation in 1972. Two years later a second reactor, Gentilly-2, got the green light to be built beside G-1, and a third one, G-3, was committed to go ahead later at the same site. Many other sites were being chosen as well.

In 1977, René Lévesque’s newly-elected government held hearings on a national energy policy for Quebec. On that occasion, le Regroupement pour la surveillance du nucléaire submitted a detailed memoire against nuclear power and for renewable energy alternatives.

The memoire cited a number of problems with nuclear power which had never been communicated by the federal government, who were the main agents pushing for the installation of nuclear power plants in Quebec.

• No consideration had been given to the problem of radioactive wastes which remain dangerous for millions of years to come. These incredibly toxic materials are mass-produced by every reactor, and there is still, today, no acceptable method for disposing of them.

• The Quebec government had not been informed of the catastrophic consequences that could result from a major nuclear accident, making large areas of land uninhabitable for centuries. Every insurance policy has a clause that denies compensation in the case of such an accident. Quebeckers would have to appeal to a federal tribunal to receive partial coverage for property damage or injuries caused by a nuclear accident in Quebec, beyond a certain minimal amount.

• Routine radioactive emissions of radioactivity into the environment had not been recognized, even though CANDU reactors release large amounts of tritium (radioactive hydrogen) on a regular basis. Tritium cannot be filtered out. It is very mobile in the environment and enters readily into all living things, including unborn children. It is a known carcinogen, and laboratory tests confirm that it causes genetic damage.

• The dismantling of the highly radioactive structures at the end of a reactor’s lifetime will be extremely costly, and has never been done before for a large electricity-generating reactor. Thousands of truckloads of radioactive rubble will have to be packaged and transported to some unknown destination to be guarded for thousands of years.

Even before the 1977 hearings in Quebec City, a number of other events had dramatically illustrated the disadvantages of nuclear power.

• In 1974 the Indian government exploded its first atomic bomb using plutonium produced in a Canadian nuclear research reactor that was given as a gift by the Canadian government. This event dramatically demonstrated the falsity of the claim that peaceful nuclear power had nothing to do with the spread of nuclear weapons.

• In 1975 radioactive contamination from a federally-owned nuclear facility in the town of Port Hope Ontario came to light. So extensive was the contamination that a primary school had to be evacuated and hundreds of homes destroyed, while hundreds more buildings underwent expensive decontamination. Canadian authorities promised to remove 800,000 tons of radioactive waste material from the town within one year, but in fact those wastes remain in the town of Port Hope to this day.

• The Gentilly-1 reactor was proving to have a fatally flawed design. It was unstable and so incapable of operating continuously. It never ended up producing a single kilowatt-hour of off-site electricity. It was a financial and technical fiasco. By 1978 it had to be shut down permanently, having operated for only 180 days over a period of six years.

Upon learning of the many serious disadvantages of nuclear power, the Lévesque government declared a moratorium on any further construction of new reactors in Quebec, with the exception of Gentilly-2 (already under construction) and Gentilly-3 (already agreed to).

The Gentilly-1 reactor was built and owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the same federally-owned corporation that created the medical isotope crisis in recent months. It was original planned that Hydro-Quebec would buy the reactor once it was proven to be a reliable producer of electricity. But that day never came; so G-1 still belongs to the federal government through AECL.

Meanwhile, G-2 underwent terrific cost escalations. Originally intended to cost $300 million, the reactor ended up costing $1.4 billion – almost 5 times the original estimate. The federal governmen had promised to pay half the construction costs, as a way of pushing Quebec into the nuclear club -- but they only wanted to pay half of the original estimate, not half of the real costs! Quebec had learned a hard lesson in nuclear economics, and the Gentilly-3 plan was never built.

Another very unpleasant turn of events was the complete write-off of the LaPrade Heavy Water Plant in 1978, built by AECL and Hydro-Quebec right beside the Gentilly reactor site. It never produced any heavy water at all and was a complete financial loss, because not enough CANDU reactors were built to justify the need for so much heavy water.

Because of a surplus of electricity in Quebec, G-2 only operated at 50 percent of its capacity from 1983 until 1987, adding to the financial unprofitability of the plant.

Today, neither Hydro-Quebec nor the Quebec government has any interest in building more nuclear reactors. For Quebec, nuclear power is a dead end.

Nevertheless, the nuclear team at Hydro-Quebec wants to spend $1.5 billion to refurbish the Gentilly-2 reactor, which is becoming increasingly dangerous to operate because of premature aging caused by prolonged exposure to intense radiation, heat and pressure. The price tag for refurbishment is higher than the original construction cost, and it is already $300 million more than it was last September, even though the work has not even started.

Quebecers should say no to the project of refurbishment of Gentilly-2, because in reality, it is building a new reactor inside the shell of the old one. Thus it is contrary to the existing moratorium on new nuclear reactors. The plan is to remove thousands of highly radioactive pipes made of steel and zirconium from the core of the reactor, and rebuild the core completely. Meanwhile, this will create a new category of radioactive waste to be stored outside the reactor -- a permanent burden to our children and grandchildren.

In 2005, the BAPE (Bureau des audiences publiques sur l'environnement-- Office of Public Hearings on the Environment) recommended aginst the refrubishment of G-2 until Hydro-Quebec and the Government of Quebec have articulated firm financial and technical plans for the next few thousand years to handle the radioactive wastes from the continued operation of the reactor.

The BAPE has also reported that the drinking water of communities near the G-2 reactor already have levels of tritium in drinking water which would be illegal in some other jurisdictions, such as California. A recent report from Germany, commissioned by the government, has shown a significant correlation between leukemia and cancer among children under five who live closer to nuclear power plants.

Since the events of 9/11 it has become clear that terrorists will try to attack facilities where maximum damage can be achieved. The Gentilly-2 reactor is a prime candidate for such attacks; the high-level radioactive waste in the reactor pool is not adequately protected from potential terrorist attacks.

Shutting the reactor down and closing the book on nuclear power in Quebec will greatly reduce the terrorist threat, as well as the threat of catastrophic accidents. It will reduce the radioactivity in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we grow. It will also save a billion-and-a-half dollars which can be used instead for energy efficiency measures in communities throughout Quebec.