Adieu Gentilly 2

It came as a surprise to no one that the newly elected PQ government in Quebec announced that it would not go ahead with the refurbishment of the Gentilly CANDU-6 reactor. As I fearlessly predicted in my original Fukushima post of June 3, 2011 reprinted in the rebuilt blog on May 30 this year:

“The only possibility of a Canadian retreat from nuclear power that I think we’ll see in Canada is Quebec will not go ahead with the refurbishment of the Gentilly II reactor and ultimately decommission it. Much of the reason for this decision will be based on the poor performance of the Point Lepreau project with only a small push from Fukushima.”

Of course, the “only possibility” part may be wrong in terms of Ontario’s stalling on a commitment to new build.

There was never a good electricity production argument for a reactor in Quebec.  The province has a huge hydroelectric capacity, more than 30 GW, that’s around twice the power of Ontario’s nuclear fleet. The extra 0.68 GW produced by the Gentilly reactor is just a drop in the hydraulic bucket. In fact Quebec exports surplus electricity to the US Northeast.  As I recall it was, paraphrasing the song, an “everything’s up to date in Quebec city” sentiment that drove the establishment of the Quebec nuclear program. Gentilly was meant to show the world that the province was a modern and high tech society but it didn’t work out that way.

The reactor to be shut down is actually Gentilly 2. The first Gentilly reactor completed in 1971 was an experimental CANDU design from AECL with a grisly combination of bad ideas such as vertical fuel strings and light water coolant. It could never be made to work since among other things the neutron flux tilted all over the place. It ran for a very short total time spread over a period of a few years but enough to activate it and so it requires full decommissioning. Gentilly I was rightly nick -named “le citron” or the lemon.

Perhaps it was persistence on the part of Hydro Quebec, the utility supplying Quebec’s electricity, or the federal government making good on AECL’s fiasco with the first reactor. Whatever the reason, a CANDU-6 was built at Gentilly.  It started up in 1983 and has worked fairly well with a few minor glitches recently. It’s now at the very end of its useful lifetime and needs immediate refurbishment. With the government announcement that isn’t going to happen.

There has been some unfounded chattering about negative health effects from Gentilly but that isn’t relevant to the decision to close. Economics is driving the issue – “it’s the economy stupid” is the right cliché for this occasion.  The latest reports show the Point Lepreau refurbishment cost $2.4 billion. A similar job at Gentilly would cost at least the same and most likely more.  Why invest these funds when Quebec has an electricity surplus large enough to take it through the next few decades? The decision not to refurbish will yield a net economic gain to Hydro Quebec in the long run after decommissioning costs are covered because the company will be able to shed the nuclear infrastructure overheads needed to support a single reactor.  The bottom line is the bottom line: there’s a better business case for not refurbishing the reactor than for doing it.