The environmental movement had a huge win last week:  Quebec announced it will shut down its only nuclear reactor, Gentilly-2.    I believe we can import the success of the campaign to close Gentilly-2 to Ontario.  Together we can stop Premier McGuinty’s plan to spend billions to keep the Darlington nuclear station on life support.

There’s one key lesson I learned from the campaign to shut down Gentilly-2: the nuclear lobby will use its influence with government to shield it from public scrutiny.     Why? Because the nuclear lobby’s claims of cheap, clean and safe nuclear power don’t stand up to a smell test.   

Our job now in Ontario is to expose the real costs and risks of Dalton McGuinty’s plan to rebuild the Darlington nuclear station.  This is what activists in Quebec started to do a decade ago.

Like other CANDU reactor operators, Hydro-Quebec realized about fifteen years ago that it would have to close Gentilly-2 unless it underwent massive repairs to continue operating. 

Hydro-Quebec (and its colleagues in the Canadian nuclear industry) then started up a campaign to sell Gentilly-2 to Quebecers and Quebec politicians.

The public campaign aimed to appease a skeptical Quebec public with claims that Gentilly-2 would be safe, cost-effective and its radioactive waste would probably get dumped in Ontario anyway. 

And behind closed doors Hydro-Quebec and the Canadian nuclear lobby did its best to get the federal and Quebec politicians  to withhold information on both the financial and accident risks of Gentilly-2 from the public.

Take, for example, the Charest government’s response to provincial government’s environmental assessment board, which is known in Quebec simply as the BAPE (Le Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement).

During public hearings on the proposed expansion of Gentilly-2 radioactive waste site in 2004, the public and environmental groups overwhelmingly told the BAPE that expanding Gentilly-2’s radioactive waste dump without first debating the merits of extending the life of Gentilly-2 was unacceptable. 

The BAPE agreed.  It told the Charest government it should clarify how it would decide the future of Gentilly-2. It also told the Charest government to clarify its position on a whole range of environmental issues, including the long-term management of radioactive waste, before any decision was made to proceed with extending the life of Gentilly.

This was good and reasonable advice.  And while disagreeing with some of the BAPE’s conclusions, Quebec’s environmental movement asked the Charest government to respond to the BAPE’s recommendations in 2005.

The Charest government, however, never addressed the BAPE’s concerns. It didn’t even bother to send a letter acknowledging the request of environmentalists. Total silence.

This silence was how the Charest government protected the nuclear industry.  It just ignored risks, withheld information, and disregarded independent advice.  When you’re unable to defend something, it’s just better to keep quiet.  And that’s exactly what the Charest government did.

Instead Jean Charest just went ahead and approved the life-extension of Gentilly-2 in August 2008.  He pretended the project was cost-effective and the radioactive waste problem was solved, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

This time, however, environmental groups got themselves better organized.  Mouvement Sortons le Québec du nucléaire (MSQN) was born in 2008.

The MSQN asked Charest government again to respond publicly to the BAPE’s recommendations.  And again, Premier Charest refused.

So the MSQN did what it could.  As a network of organizations and individuals, the MSQN worked to counter the Charest government’s duck and cover nuclear policies by talking to friends, family and politicians.  The MSQN exposed Gentilly-2’s risks, distributed research and called for government transparency and accountability.  

And the MSQN’s mobilizing and educational efforts worked. Over 300 municipalities in Quebec passed resolutions against the refurbishment of Gentilly-2.

Then in 2009, the formerly pro-nuclear Parti Quebecois (PQ) stated it wouldn’t approve the life-extension of the Gentilly-2 nuclear station if elected.   And the PQ followed through on its promise last week, declaring it will shut Gentilly-2 down at the end of 2012.

While Quebec’s new opposition parties may be complaining about the PQ’s alleged rash decision to close Gentilly-2, it is good news and the PQ should be commended.   Gentilly-2’s closure is good for the environment and our pocketbook.

We will learn over the next few months that the worst fears of environmentalists have been born out over the past decade.  The Charest government, however, was hiding the information.

First, there’s Gentilly-2’s financial costs.

It will come out bit by bit in the next few weeks that CANDU life-extension is not cost-effective. This is a huge blow to the international reputation of the Canadian nuclear industry.  

Last week, Eric Gamache, a spokesperson for Premier Marois, told industry journal Nucleonics Weekly that rebuilding Gentilly-2 was about $3 billion.  That’s billions more than the $800 million Hydro-Qeubec initially said it would cost in 2002.

Of course, former Premier Jean Charest must have known this, but never bothered to say it before the election. Doing so would have forced him to talk frankly about the risks and costs of Gentilly-2.  That’s what he was trying to avoid.  The nuclear lobby doesn’t want these cost figures released.

And then there’s Fukushima.

While Hydro-Quebec has maintained for a decade that Gentilly-2 is “safe”, Fukushima reminded the world that nuclear reactors are inherently risky.  That’s why Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Japan are all abandoning nuclear power since Fukushima.  It’s just too risky. 

Hydro-Quebec knows Gentilly-2 is risky.  That’s why it asks the federal government for a law – known as the Nuclear Liability Act – to shield it from liability in the event of an accident.

But instead of trying to make Gentilly-2 less risky, however, the nuclear lobby has been pushing to water down Canadian nuclear safety standards over the past decade. .

Several years ago, for example, I acquired a memo through Access to Information from Hydro-Quebec to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).  In it, Hydro-Quebec tells the CNSC that the financial case for rebuilding Gentilly is “weak” and depends on the level or safety standards required by the CNSC.

Translation: Hydro-Quebec told the federal safety regulator that Gentilly-2 would only be cost-effective if safety requirements are watered down. 

The aforementioned memo dates from 2004. At the time, Hydro-Quebec said Gentilly’s life-extension would cost about $1.1 billion.  

So if the economic case for rebuilding Gentilly was “weak” at $1.1 billion how could it possibly be cost effective at $2 or 3 billion?  Good question.  Something clearly doesn’t add up.  One could reasonably conclude that either Gentilly-2 isn’t cost-effective or the CNSC has allowed safety standards to be significantly watered down. Neither is acceptable, however.

Worse still, SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec engineering firm that wants the contract to rebuild Gentilly-2, convinced the Harper government in 2008 to fire former CNSC president Linda Keen because she had tried to reduce reactor risks by imposing international safety standards on Canadian reactor operators like Hydro-Quebec.  According to Keen, SNC-Lavalin hired lobby Hill and Knowlton to get her fired. 

The Harper government subsequently appointed a new CNSC president who is very friendly to the nuclear industry.  And then in 2011 the Harper government also gave SNC-Lavalin $75 million to “buy” CANDU Energy, the company that designs and sells CANDU reactors.  This is also the company that wants the billion dollar contract to rebuild Gentilly. 

So while were being publicly told Gentilly-2 was safe and cheap, Hydro-Quebec and SNC-Lavalin privately knew the contrary was true.  

Knowing Gentilly-2’s closure would be a major blow to the reputation of CANDU reactor technology internationally, they lobbied the Charest and Harper governments for protection.  It worked.  The Harper government gave them a nuclear industry friendly safety regulator.   And from Charest, they got protection from public scrutiny and unquestioned approval for the project.

But we still won.

And we won because Quebec’s environmental movement worked for years to expose Gentilly-2’s real risks and costs. This built an ever growing coalition of environmental groups, municipalities, First Nations, and artists calling for Gentilly-2’s shut down.    This in turn convinced the PQ to say no to Hydro-Quebec and SNC-Lavalin.

And here’s the lesson for Ontario.

Like Hydro-Quebec a decade ago, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is proposing to rebuild the four Darlington reactors to extend their operational lives until 2055. 

And OPG is playing from the same playbook.   They’ve also convinced McGuinty government to shield nuclear projects from public scrutiny. 

The McGuinty government has proposed legislation to remove the requirement for Darlington reactors to be publicly evaluated for the cost-effectiveness.  And in 2006 the government exempted all nuclear projects from provincial environmental assessments and handed the responsibility to the industry-friendly federal nuclear safety regulator.

This should be expected.   The nuclear lobby’s claims of cheap, clean and safe nuclear power don’t stand up to a smell test so they avoid scrutiny at every turn. 

So what can we do?

Reveal the truth like activists did in Quebec.  Together we need to expose the Darlington’s real risks and call for government transparency and accountability.   

And the campaign to stop Darlington begins this Fall.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is asking your opinion on whether Darlington should be allowed to continue operating until 2055. 

Please join us in telling the CNSC  ‘no’.

Then talk to our friends, family and politicians about why we should shut down Darlington.

For more information and to join the campaign please sign up here.

It took us years to stop Gentilly-2 in Quebec.  I believe that together we can stop Darlington in Ontario too.