nb-point-lepreau

Energy Minister Jack Keir said he could not guarantee to Hydro-Quebec that the Point Lepreau nuclear reactor would be operating again by the end of 2011. ((CBC))

New Brunswick's energy minister says he can't be sure the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station will be up and running after its $1.4-billion refurbishment by the end of 2011.

The reactor was supposed to be restarted next February, 16 months behind its original repair schedule, but Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the federal nuclear agency that is leading the refurbishment phase, has been experiencing more problems in getting the project completed.

Energy Minister Jack Keir said on Thursday that uncertainty over Point Lepreau's future and legal liabilities associated with the Mactaquac hydroelectric dam were among the issues that led Hydro-Québec to demand more concessions in its proposed energy deal.

Quebec and New Brunswick broke off negotiations for the $3.2-billion power accord this week, after five months of intense controversy in New Brunswick.

Under the collapsed deal, Quebec would have taken over the nuclear reactor.

But Keir said on Thursday it was impossible to guarantee to Quebec when it would be producing power again.

"They said to us, `When's Lepreau going to start back up?' And we said, `Not sure.' They said, `Well, OK, will it be by the end of 2011?' We said, `Boy, we sure hope so but we're not sure,'" Keir said.

"They said, 'OK, is it going to run at 90 per cent like it used to? `We sure hope so.' Right? That's not anybody being tough negotiators. It's just a fact."

Keir said he hasn't been able to get a new completion date from AECL.

The Point Lepreau refurbishment project is the first of AECL's Candu-6 reactors.

The project was supposed to have been completed in October 2009, but AECL admitted last fall that its original timeline was flawed.

The revised timeline is supposed to see AECL turn the refurbished reactor back over to NB Power in October 2010 so the New Brunswick utility can finish its share of the remaining tasks and test the reactor. It is expected that Atlantic Canada's only nuclear reactor will be producing power again in February.

AECL is running into problems as it installs the reactor's calandria tubes, which contain pressure rods that hold uranium fuel bundles.

AECL had planned on installing 380 calandria tubes in the reactor by the start of February, a deadline that was pushed back until the end of March. Now, AECL has delayed the end date yet again and set a new target for the end of April.

An AECL spokesman said earlier in March the agency still intends to have its part of the refurbishment complete by October despite the problems with the calandria tubes.