Hydro-Québec employees were expecting the Gentilly-2 reactor to be closed because it was a plank of the PQ's recent election platform, said their union's vice-president, Ginette Paul. But they didn't think it would happen so fast.
The Parti Québécois announced on Sept. 11 that it would shut down the nuclear plant, located in the Mauricie region across the St. Lawrence River from Trois-Rivières. That was a week after it unseated the Liberals in the provincial election, and still eight days before party leader Pauline Marois and her cabinet were sworn in as ministers.
"During the election campaign, Ms. Marois promised a consultation with the unions and the region's economic entities before making a decision," said Paul, of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Interim opposition leader Jean-Marc Fournier said the move to scrub the reactor without first having some kind of dialogue with local authorities shows the PQ's dogmatism.
"You have to be able to meet people and enter into dialogue with them. It's not just 'my way or the highway' in Quebec. There's people in Trois-Rivières, in the Mauricie, who expect respect from the government
François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec party, concurred, saying Marois has shown a tendency to make decisions without first examining things in depth.
Risk of cost overruns
The former Liberal provincial government decided in 2008 to rebuild Gentilly-2 at a projected cost of about $2 billion, but stopped work after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.
The reactor has been in commercial operation since 1983, and its operating licence runs out at the end of the year. Refurbishing it would extend that by up to 30 years.
But the costs could be much steeper. 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.
There are also concerns about the health effects of the Quebec reactor. The recently premiered film Gentilly Or Not To Be 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.
Still, Michel Bibeault, the union's Quebec director and a former Hydro-Québec employee, said that financial considerations aside, it would be safer to keep the plant running than to shutter it.
"Every day our members take care of security for 15,000 spent uranium fuel rods," Bibeault said. "What's going to happen if we close the reactor? Are you going to put three or four Pinkerton agents and a chain-link fence?"
The union says Quebec doesn't have the technology to safely shut down Gentilly-2. It would first have to develop expertise and spend time planning how to decommission the reactor.
But Yves-François Blanchet, Quebec's minister for the Mauricie, said the government has made up its mind and the region needs to look to the future and work toward economic diversification.
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.
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