Quebec to shut down its only nuclear reactor

Quebec's new government has confirmed it won't proceed with the multibillion-dollar refurbishment of the province's lone nuclear reactor and will instead close it.
Hydro-Québec's Gentilly-2 nuclear power plant near Trois-Rivières will have to be taken offline by the end of this year, either for an overhaul or for good. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec's new government has confirmed it won't proceed with the multibillion-dollar refurbishment of the province's lone nuclear reactor and will instead shut it down.

A spokesman for incoming premier Pauline Marois gave the confirmation Tuesday, one day after the first public screening of a new film on the reactor that raises questions about its safety for people living nearby.

The government of outgoing Premier Jean Charest decided in 2008 to rebuild the Gentilly-2 nuclear plant at a cost of about $2 billion, but stopped work after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

Power Switch 

The PQ has committed since 2009 to close the generating station, which is located in Bécancour, Que., across the St. Lawrence River from Trois-Rivières.

A decision had to be made by the end of this year, when Gentilly-2's operating licence runs out.

The reactor has been in commercial operation since 1983, and refurbishing it could extend that by up to 30 years.

But the costs would be steep. Only two other Candu-6 nuclear reactors have ever been refurbished. The first, New Brunswick's Point Lepreau generating station, was supposed to take 18 months but suffered three years of delays and more than $1 billion in cost overruns, and still isn't back online.

Film raises health questions

There are also concerns about the health effects of the Quebec reactor.

The film Gentilly Or Not To Be, which screened in Trois-Rivières on Monday night and has its official premiere Tuesday night in Montreal, cites data from the Mauricie and Central Quebec public-health authority showing an increase in tumours in people under age 20 living in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, a Trois-Rivières community 13 kilometres upriver from the nuclear plant.

Filmmaker Guylaine Maroist's new documentary raises questions about radioactivity in the area around the reactor. (Radio-Canada)

The film also presents a German study of people living within five kilometres of nuclear reactors, who have twice the normal rate of childhood leukemia cases.

"There's various interpretations of the studies. What we wanted to do in the film is show these divergent interpretations," the film's co-director, Guylaine Maroist, said.

Gilles W. Grenier, a physician and the director of public health for Mauricie and Central Quebec, said the German study shows a correlation but not a conclusive causal link between the nuclear plants and the cancer cases. Other research in France and Britain doesn't bear out that there are higher cancer rates in areas surrounding reactors, he said.

There's no evidence the Gentilly-2 nuclear plant has contributed to higher rates of cancer, regional public health director Gilles W. Grenier says. (Radio-Canada)

Hydro-Québec's tally of the total radioactivity emitted by Gentilly-2 puts it at about one per cent of the background level in nature, Grenier said, which is 100,000 times less than the amount that would cause serious problems.

"We've been monitoring cancer rates and birth-defect rates for 20 years in a 20-kilometre radius around the reactor, and in all that period, in the zone from five to 10 kilometres out, we've never seen a rise in cancer cases against the Quebec average," Grenier said.

"That said, for two years, outside the 10-kilometre zone, in the Cap-de-la-Madeleine area, we saw a brief increase that then went back down. So at this time, we can't say there's been a rise in leukemia cases."

Radioactive components

Refurbishing Gentilly-2 is another story, however, because the reactor's internal components would be removed and replaced. Anti-nuclear activists say that poses a heightened risk.

"The structural materials that are removed from the reactor are going to in fact themselves be highly radioactive, and they will remain dangerous for thousands of years," said Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. "There isn't in Quebec a provision for what to do with these, where they're going to go."

The vast majority of Quebec's electricity, nearly 95 per cent, comes from hydro power. Gentilly-2 has an output of 635 megawatts — about 1.5 per cent of Quebec's total capacity — and generates around three per cent of the province's electricity.

"The ultimate question," filmmaker Maroist said, "is do we need this energy?"