Canadian Coalition
for Nuclear

Regroupement pour
la surveillance
du nucléaire

Nuclear Power in Quebec

prepared for the Public Debate on Energy
by Gordon Edwards, President of CCNR

[ pour la version française ]

autumn 1995

Historical Perspective

Nuclear power in Quebec -- and indeed in Canada -- has turned out to be a very great disappointment.

Once promoted as a safe, clean, and cheap energy source, nuclear power is now seen by many Quebecers as dangerous, dirty and expensive.

The experimental Gentilly-1 nuclear reactor near Bécancour was a technical and economic fiasco. It only operated in an erratic fashion for 180 days before it was permanently shut down. The high level radioactive waste produced by the Gentilly-1 reactor is presently stored inside the reactor building. This material -- containing dozens of different kinds of radioactive poisons, some of them gases -- will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. The radioactive structural materials in the core area of the Gentilly-1 reactor -- which will eventually have to be dismantled, packaged and buried as radioactive waste -- will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. All of this radioactive property is owned by the federal government, but it may end up being the Quebec government that will have to deal with the problem.

The Gentilly-2 reactor was built with a promise from Ottawa to pay half the total cost, estimated to be less than $400 million. The plant actually cost almost four times the initial estimate, but Ottawa felt obliged only to pay half of the original estimate. The Gentilly-2 reactor has been performing well over its 11-year lifetime except for one thing: year after year, it produces electricity at a cost greater than the price it is sold at. It has lost at least a billion dollars since it started up, and probably much more if a true cost accounting were done.

The LaPrade Heavy Water Plant, also located at Bécancour, within sight of the Gentilly-1 and Gentilly-2 reactors, was also suggested by Ottawa. It cost over $400 million to build, and it has never operated a single day -- although it has cost tens of millions of dollars just to "baby-sit" the building from year to year. The reason LaPrade was never needed is because, after it was built, nobody wanted to buy any more CANDU reactors, which is the only real market for heavy water -- other than nuclear weapons manufacturers, who can make use of the heavy water to help produce the explosive materials used in nuclear armaments.

End of an Era

After the Parti Québecois came to power under René Lévesque, the Quebec government declared a moratorium on building any more nuclear power plants in Quebec. In announcing the policy, however, the government pointed out that Gentilly-3 would be built, because it had already been approved before the moratorium took effect. Nevertheless, the moratorium signaled an end to the mindless rush towards nuclear power which seemed to be taking place at that time -- Hydro-Quebec was planning as many as 30 nuclear reactors along the St. Lawrence River, and had already begun choosing sites (Ste- Croix de Lotbinière, for one). Gentilly-3 was never built.

The nuclear moratorium, which has now expired and has not been extended by the present government, no doubt saved Hydro-Quebec from a mess similar to the one that Ontario Hydro now finds itself in, with a fleet of increasingly dangerous and expensive nuclear reactors to maintain and inadequate financial resources to do so. Ontario Hydro is planning to shut down or "mothball" the four reactors at Bruce A, even though they have only served for half of their expected lifetimes, because Hydro cannot afford to make the expensive repairs needed for these reactors to keep their operating licenses. The plants are becoming so unsafe that even the Atomic Energy Control Board -- usually lenient to its licensees -- will no longer tolerate it.

Escalating Costs

The high-level radioactive wastes from the Gentilly-2 reactor have accumulated to the point where new, above ground storage "silos" are now being built

These indoor concrete silos hold all of the irradiated CANDU fuel bundles from the defunct Gentilly-1 reactor. G-1 is a federally-owned reactor which operated for only 180 days -- over a period of three years -- without producing any off-site electricity. Each silo is sealed and occasionally inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm that the plutonium in the spent fuel has not been extracted for possible use in bombs. Future silos (for the G-2 reactor) will be built outdoors.
photo by Robert Del Tredici

to make a bit of room in the "swimming pool" where the irradiated nuclear fuel keeps accumulating.

This water-filled pool holds ten year's worth of irradiated CANDU fuel bundles from the Gentilly-2 reactor. The bundles are robotically packed in square cages, which are sealed and occasionally inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm that the plutonium in the spent fuel has not been extracted for possible use in bombs. The pool is almost completely full, so outdoor above-ground dry storage silos are being built to hold the oldest irradiated fuel bundles.
photo by Robert Del Tredici

At the federal level, there is currently an environmental review of AECL's plans to build a geological waste repository to store the high-level radioactive wastes produced by Canadian CANDU reactors in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. The cost of this repository, which will be shared by the three provinces is estimated by AECL to be between $8 billion and $13 billion.

Atomic Energy Of Canada Ltd, Underground Research Laboratory
500 metres down inside a granite pluton at Lac du Bonet, Winnipeg

photo by Robert Del Tredici

In the past, however, cost estimates made by the nuclear industry have turned out to be wildly inaccurate. For example, Gentilly-2 was originally to have cost less than $400 million and ended up costing about a billion and a half dollars. The Darlington nuclear station in Ontario was originally supposed to have cost $4 billion, but ended up costing $17 billion. Perhaps the high-level radioactive waste repository will cost $13 x 4 = $52 billion? What will Quebec's share of that be? Even 1/20 of that sum is more than 2 and 1/2 billion dollars.

Transport Canada recently (July 1995) pointed out that Ontario Hydro has not established a fund to pay for the cost of high-level radioactive waste disposal. Although Ontario Hydro collects money from its customers for this purpose, that money is spent on daily operations instead of being put into an interest-earning fund so that it will be available when the time for disposal comes. Ontario Hydro, with a long-term debt of over $30 billion (like Hydro Quebec), will have to BORROW the money when it comes time to dispose of the wastes. Presumably, Hydro Quebec is in exactly the same position. Of course, the more nuclear waste Quebec produces, the more it will cost to transport it and "dispose" of it. (Nobody knows if "disposal" will actually work, because the human race has never actually "disposed" of anything before.)

Changing Perceptions

When the U.S. Department of Energy tried, about ten years ago, to build a geological repository for high-level radioactive wastes in the North-West United States -- Vermont, Maine, or New York State, for example -- the Quebec population in the Eastern townships mobilized to oppose the plan. Jean Charest, the conservative member from Sherbrooke, used his influence to have the Canadian ambassador warn the U.S. Government that Quebec would not look kindly on a high-level radioactive waste repository on its borders, and the Bourassa government announced it was opposed to the building of any permanent high-level radioactive waste repository "on the territory of Quebec or near its borders". Accordingly, the Bourassa government boycotted the federal environmental assessment of AECL's plans for geological disposal. But the Parizeau government has so far not re- confirmed this anti-repository policy of the previous Quebec government. [Note: nor has the Bouchard government.]

Meanwhile, CANDU reactors have gradually come to be recognized as much more dangerous than once believed. First, the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning published a report in 1978 entitled "A Race Against Time: Interim Report on Nuclear Energy in Ontario". In that document, the Commission pointed out that catastrophic accidents in CANDU reactors are possible, and -- though they are not very probable -- they cannot be ruled out:

Assuming that within the next forty years Canada will have 100 operating reactors, the probability of a core meltdown might be in the order of 1 in 40 years, if the most pessimistic estimate of probability is assumed.

Then came the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, leading the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs (a Standing Committee of the Ontario Legislature) to conduct hearings into nuclear safety. That Committee warned:

It is not right to say that a catastrophic accident is impossible . . . . The worst possible accident . . . could involve the spread of radioactive poisons over large areas, killing thousands immediately, killing others through increasing susceptibility to cancer, risking genetic defects that could affect future generations, and possibly contaminating large land areas for future habitation or cultivation.

Then, in 1983, a totally unexpected accident occurred at Pickering Reactor #2, less than twenty miles from downtown Toronto. A pressure tube had burst without warning inside the core of the nuclear reactor, causing a loss of cooling to the nuclear fuel.(Industry experts had told the Select Committee that such a sudden rupture would never happen, since a weakened pressure tube would leak before it would break, giving the operators enough time to shut the reactor down for repairs.) All the pressure tubes of both Pickering Reactor #1 and Pickering Reactor #2 had to be replaced to prevent a similar accident from happening in future. The two reactors were shut down for four years; the cost of replacing the pressure tubes was more than $700 million.

Nuclear Hazards Re-Examined

Until a couple of years ago, Gentilly-2 was also supposed have all of its pressure tubes replaced for the same reason; but when Hydro-Quebec saw the price tag, they argued that there must be a cheaper way. So instead of replacing these tubes, they are adjusting the supports -- called "garter springs" -- in hopes that the aging tubes will be less likely to burst if they are properly supported inside the core of the reactor. Those adjustments have begun to be put into place at Gentilly-2, and also at the Pointe Lepreau reactor in New Brunswick. Meanwhile, Ontario Hydro's decision to shut down the Bruce A reactors is based mainly on the fact that Ontario Hydro can't afford to replace the pressure tubes.

The Chernobyl accident was a major shock to everybody, of course, but especially to the Canadians, because every CANDU shares with the Chernobyl reactor an unfortunate design characteristic called "positive void coefficient". The problem affects all reactors that use pressure tubes; the Chernobyl reactor, like the CANDU, had pressure tubes inside the core.

Apparently, although no one knows for sure, one of the Chernobyl pressure tubes burst, and there was a terrific power surge (the power increased by a huge factor in a very short time), leading to an explosion which blew the roof off. That power surge was probably caused, or at least amplified, by the bursting of the pressure tube.

That's what "positive void coefficient" means : it means that when a pipe or a pressure tube breaks in or near the core of the reactor, there is a tendency to have a power surge immediately following.

Such an accident happened at Chalk River, Ontario, in 1952, in an experimental reactor called the NRX. A sudden loss of cooling in the core of the NRX reactor led to a terrific power surge and a series of explosions, which blew the four-ton gasholder dome four feet through the air, where it lodged in the superstructure. Radioactive gases and vapours escaped into the atmosphere, and a million gallons of radioactively contaminated water was poured into shallow trenches not very far from the Ottawa River. The core of the reactor was completely destroyed, and had to buried as radioactive waste.

Such an accident also happened at the Lucens reactor in Switzerland in 1969. A pressure tube burst, a power surge followed, and the reactor -- a small experimental reactor built inside a rocky cavern -- blew itself apart. It was completely destroyed. Most of the radioactivity stayed in the cavern.

How Safe Can You Be?

Modern CANDU reactors, including Gentilly-2, have elaborate safety systems designed to prevent such accidents from getting out of control, but nothing man- made is foolproof. In 1989, the Atomic Energy Control Board (which licenses nuclear reactors in Canada) reported to the Treasury Board as follows:

When modern nuclear power plants were being designed in Canada two decades ago, [1] their complexity and potential for catastrophic consequences were recognized. [2] The plants were designed to high standards, and special safety systems were incorporated.... Reactor designers and owners adopted a relatively simple process for evaluating plant safety.

[1] That is when the Gentilly-2 reactor was being designed.
[2] Nevertheless, Hydro-Quebec has repeatedly told the public that catastrophic accidents are impossible. [editor's notes]
Since that time, experience in Canada and the rest of the world has demonstrated that this approach to safety is too simplistic. It is recognized now that, through the combination of a series of comparatively common failures which, on their own, are of little consequence, accidents can develop in a myriad of ways (as demonstrated most vividly at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl)....

As a result, there is a legacy of unresolved safety issues that should be addressed further. This issue is particularly important as twelve of Canada's largest reactors are close to Toronto....

AECB's review of safety has also been too simplistic. Spot checks of a fairly small number of the key areas were thought to be sufficient. These spot checks have uncovered enough safety problems to demonstrate that more thorough review is essential, since the risk posed by nuclear power plants may be higher than once believed....

The task is overwhelming the AECB. It does not have the resources to analyze and understand this increased level of knowledge and information....

The consequences of a severe accident can be very high. The accident at Chernobyl has cost the Soviet economy about $ 16 billion including replacement power costs. Three Mile Island has cost the USA $ 4.8 billion....

CANDU plants cannot be said to be either more or less safe than other types.

In recent years, a number of serious safety problems have been uncovered at Gentilly-2 as AECB staff have begun to ask more questions than they used to. This summer, 1995, it was accidentally discovered that authorities in the Trois- Rivières region intend to reduce the radius of the evacuation zone around the Gentilly-2 reactor, even though unresolved safety problems at the plant are multiplying. [See Annex A for a discussion of some of these safety problems.]

The nuclear industry has always had a curious habit of operating in secrecy, and so it was in this case -- none of the thirteen mayors of the municipalities to be excluded from the evacuation zone were consulted or notified, nor was the CRD- 04, until a radio story on Dimanche Magazine by Danny Brown revealed the truth of the situation.

It is ironic that nuclear proponents try so hard to convince people that nuclear power is safe, when the nuclear industry is the only one in all of Canada that is protected by law from being financially liable, beyond a very minimal amount, in the event of a major industrial accident. The Nuclear Liability Act limits the liability of the owner of a nuclear plant to $75 millions, even though the actual damage from a major accident could be tens of billions.

Moreover, the suppliers of nuclear equipment are, under this law, completely exempt from liability even if faulty components supplied by them were a contributing cause of the accident. And on top of that, the insurance companies will not insure anybody against the consequences of radioactive contamination from a nuclear accident; there is a standard "nuclear exclusion clause" in every single insurance policy that says the insured has no coverage whatsoever in the case of radioactive contamination. The industry is sure that reactors are safe, but they don't want to bet any money on it.

Chronic Radiation Exposure

Meanwhile, the Gentilly-2 reactor continues to operate at a loss, providing power that is surplus and over-priced, running into expensive repair and maintenance problems, accumulating nuclear waste as a legacy for future generations, and exposing the population nearby to unnecessary risk and to unavoidable routine exposure to atomic radiation.

Every CANDU reactor, including Gentilly-2, releases large quantities of radioactive hydrogen into the atmosphere and into the water. This radioactive hydrogen is called "tritium", and it is easily incorporated into water molecules -- whether in liquid form or in the form of water vapour or steam. Persons near the plant, or down-wind or down-river from the plant, or eating produce grown in the vicinity of the plant -- or milk, or meat -- take the tritium into their bodies by breathing tritium-contaminated air,by drinking tritium-contaminated water or milk, by eating tritium-contaminated food, or by absorbing tritium directly through the skin. (Hydro Quebec estimates that, of all the air-borne tritium that enters the body, one half enters through the lungs, and the other half through the skin.)

Although tritium is a very weakly radioactive substance, it is nevertheless dangerous, as all radioactive materials are. But tritium poses special dangers which are not fully understood, because of the fact that tritium behaves like ordinary hydrogen and can therefore be built right into the organic molecules of the body, including the DNA molecules. Animal studies have shown that tritium is quite effective at causing genetic damage as well as damage to developing embryos. Though the doses used for laboratory animals are, of course, much higher than what the population is exposed to, scientific studies indicate that for mutagens -- substances that cause genetic damage -- there is no such thing as a safe dose, because any dose, no matter how small, can cause the damage to a single cell that later results in a defective child.

In recent years, the International Joint Commission, responsible for limiting and controlling pollution in the Great Lakes, has warned that tritium is building up unacceptably in Lake Ontario due to the operation of CANDU nuclear power plants. The Joint Commission wants tritium treated as a "persistent toxic substance", and suggests that the policy for all persistent toxics should be to achieve "zero emissions". If such a policy were applied to the St. Lawrence River, that would mark the end of Gentilly-2.

Even more recently, in Ontario, the Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards (ACES) has pointed out that if tritium were judged the same way that other toxic materials are treated -- toxic chemicals, that is -- the permissible levels of tritium released to the environment would have to be reduced by a factor of about ten thousand. The Government of Ontario has not yet adopted the implied recommendation, no doubt because they cannot imagine shutting down all their nuclear power plants. But there is no reason why the standard could not be applied here in Quebec. If it means that Gentilly-2 is shut down, so be it. We could use the $80 million in annual operating costs that we would save, to pay down some of Hydro's debt or invest in energy efficiency.

[Hydro Quebec argues that, even though Gentilly-2 is losing money, the cost of operating the reactor is less than the revenue from the power produced [3], so it would not pay to shut it down. But this argument is incorrect. The province is now in a position of electrical surplus, as it has been in fact during all of the 11 years in which the Gentilly-2 reactor has so far operated. Surplus power does not have to be replaced, because it won't be missed. Since the operating cost of Gentilly-2 is much greater than the operating cost of any existing dam, Hydro-Québec would save money by shutting down Gentilly-2.]

[3] The main expense for Gentilly-2 is paying back all the money Hydro-Quebec had to borrow to build the plant in the first place. The operating costs are considerably less than these "fixed costs". [ed. note]

Emerging Health Concerns

Just as reactors are now seen as more dangerous than we had previously been led to believe, so it is that chronic exposure to low-level atomic radiation is also being recognized as significantly more damaging than we were once told. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Fifth Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR-V) published a careful analysis in 1990, which indicated that low- level radiation is from seven to ten times more effective in causing cancer in humans than was previously believed. Since then, the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) has been forced by irrefutable scientific evidence to recommend a reduction in the permissible levels of exposure for both atomic workers and members of the public. The Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), traditionally reluctant to move toward tighter controls, is now beginning to impose new, more stringent standards for permissible radiation exposure.

However, cancer in the individual who is exposed to atomic radiation is not the only ill effect that is possible. Unborn children are often the innocent victims. A disturbing study from Britain has shown a significant increase in the rates of leukemia among children whose fathers are exposed to atomic radiation on the job. Both the BEIR-V Committee and the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) have recently confirmed that mental retardation in children is caused by radiation exposure to their pregnant mothers during a critical stage of development of the embryo in the mother's womb. Existing evidence indicates that there may be no safe threshold for loss of intelligence caused by prenatal exposure. In other words, every dose of radiation to a pregnant woman, no matter how small, may serve to reduce the intelligence of her unborn baby.

In animal studies, tritium has been shown to cause teratogenic effects -- deformities and other defects in unborn offspring. Near the Gentilly-2 nuclear reactor, there were an unusually large number of deformed babies born a few years ago, and the cause was never determined (although the Département de Santé Communautaire said that, in its opinion, the deformities were not likely caused by radiation exposure.) However, there have also been an unusually large number of defective babies born in the vicinity of the Pickering reactor near Toronto, a situation which was brought to light by the pro-nuclear union of atomic workers at the plant. And there have also been many deformed children and other bizarre medical ailments reported from India, in a village not far from the Rajasthan Atomic Power Plant (RAPP). In all three cases, the nuclear reactors are of the CANDU variety, which give off into the environment much, much more tritium than any other commercial nuclear power reactors in the world.

CCNR believes that it is irresponsible for health authorities and political leaders to assume, without proof, that these health problems are unrelated to the large emissions of tritium into the environment that are characteristic of CANDU nuclear reactors. Indeed, CCNR believes that the permissible release of known carcinogens, known mutagens and known teratogens into the environment should be zero. The burden of proof should be on the industry to prove safety; the onus should not be on the population to prove danger.

Finding Our Way

The time has come to close the book and end this unhappy story by phasing out nuclear power in Quebec. For starters, the Gentilly-2 nuclear reactor should be shut down, the construction of above-ground dry-storage silos for high-level radioactive wastes should be halted, and negotiations should be undertaken between Hydro Quebec and Ontario Hydro to transfer the irradiated nuclear fuel now stored in Quebec to Ontario, where by far the largest inventory of high-level radioactive wastes in Canada exists.

In addition, the government of Quebec should pressure the government of Canada to finance the complete and final dismantlement of the radioactive structure known as Gentilly-1, which belongs to the federal government.

There are many advantages to dismantling Gentilly-1.

  • First, it is a job that must be done, sooner or later, in any event -- so let's get on with it.
  • Second, it will provide valuable jobs and opportunities for people with expertise in the nuclear field.
  • Third, it is a fact that no large power reactor anywhere in the world has been fully dismantled, and the first agency to do so will have an excellent opportunity to market the necessary tools and skills internationally. The International Atomic Energy Agency -- IAEA -- estimates that there will be about 100 nuclear power reactors, world-wide, needing decommissioning (a euphemism for dismantlement) by the first decade of the next century. Each decommissioning job will cost at least $100 million, so we are talking about ten billion dollars in business opportunities!
  • Fourth, because Gentilly-1 only operated for 180 days, it is less radioactive than any other power reactor of comparable size; thus workers can develop the tools and techniques in a safer, less radioactive environment than would be encountered almost anywhere else.
  • And finally, since radioactive demolition requires the use of robotic equipment, there are good prospects for industrial spinoffs, unrelated to the nuclear industry, in the domain of robotics.

~ fin ~

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