At the end of this year, Quebec will permanently shut down its only nuclear generator, the CANDU 6 known as Gentilly 2. What will replace G2’s clean electricity? Dirty, carbon-heavy electricity from fossil-fired generators. The reactor has been operating since the early 1980s and has reached what would normally be its mid-life. It could be refurbished, which essentially involves removing the original fuel channel, calandria, and feeder tubes and replacing them with new pipes. Refurbishment is a complex and expensive undertaking, in which a high-skilled workforce proceeds stepwise through closely coordinated series of tasks, using literally thousands of custom tools. But the game is usually worth the candle. A refurbished reactor will crank out huge amounts of carbon-free electricity for another 30 years. The alternative is to generate electricity by burning fossil fuel.
A CANDU 6 like G2 will produce upwards of 5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. Replace G2’s output with electricity from a generator burning natural gas—which is allegedly “clean”—and you’ll dump 2.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, each and every year, into our air.
G2’s output is enough to power a city the size of Quebec City 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At the low price of, say, four cents per kWh, G2 would earn more than $200 million in revenue each year.
Moreover, the refurbishment would create thousands of high-paid jobs and a huge positive economic boost to the communities near G2. The recently completed Bruce Power refurbishment, which brought two 750-megawatt CANDUs back into service, employed 3,300 people. It was Canada’s biggest infrastructure project, and has made the Bruce plant by far the largest clean-energy producer in the western hemisphere.
Quebec desperately needs employment, and the government could use the huge tax revenues from a major capital project to run the province’s social programs, which are the most extensive in Canada.
So why has the government decided to shut G2 down? The basis for this decision is, ostensibly, cost. The recently elected Parti-Québecois minority government claims that the example of the Point Lepreau refurbishment, which also involved a CANDU 6, sealed G2’s fate. Lepreau was late returning to service, and that will cost New Brunswickers a lot of money for replacement power.
But when you really look at the government’s stated reason, it starts looking more like an excuse. Lepreau was what’s known as a FOAK—a first-of-a-kind project. It was the first CANDU 6 refurbishment. FOAKs almost always take longer, and are therefore more expensive, than originally expected.
A much better indicator of how a G2 refurbishment would go is Wolsong, in South Korea, which was the second CANDU 6 refurbishment project to start. The Wolsong refurbishment started in the spring of 2009, almost a year after the Lepreau project started, and the reactor was back at full power in July 2011.
Why did Wolsong take such less time than Lepreau has taken? Because the Wolsong project team incorporated lessons learned from Lepreau, and used some major custom equipment that was developed at Lepreau.
The Quebec government’s excuse for shutting G2 down rings hollow when you consider the success of the Wolsong refurbishment. Subsequent CANDU 6 refurbs are likely to repeat the Wolsong outcome.
Some Canadians have an unfortunate habit of reviling those who take tough decisions and stick with them. Our national public broadcaster is perpetuating this bad habit by celebrating the Quebec government’s decision to close G2. Instead of honouring NB Power, which has shown excellent foresight and environmental stewardship in proceeding with the FOAK Lepreau refurbishment, and a solid backbone in standing by the decision, CBC has climbed aboard the facile anti-nuclear bandwagon.
The anti-nuclear bandwagon will only lead to more scenes like that wrecked highway in North Carolina.