A leading researcher at the University of Moncton predicts the cost overruns in overhauling the Point Lepreau nuclear plant will top $1.6 billion.

Last week, NB Power announced it may raise rates by 1.8 per cent or 2.5 per cent for 30 years to pay for the cost overruns.

Yves Gagnon, the K.C. Irving chair in sustainable development at the university, said Tuesday that small increase will end up costing each New Brunswick resident $2,000.  

Gagnon said that cost overruns and delays are inevitable when Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) tries to fix a reactor.

Work year and a half behind

The work at Point Lepreau is now 16 months behind schedule and the cost to buy replacement power while it's down has doubled.

"I think it was predictable what is happening at Point Lepreau. The nuclear industry is characterized by long delays and huge overcosts," Gagnon said.

Two nuclear refits in Ontario wound up costing 273 per cent and 467 per cent more, respectively, he said, predicting it will be the same in New Brunswick.

"What we're seeing right now is, indeed, long delays to finish the work and huge overcosts to finish the work, costs that will sooner or later be the burden of rate payers or taxpayers," Gagnon said.

And he said the power increases are just the beginning.

"Right now at Point Lepreau the New Brunswick cost can reach $3 billion, and it's not done yet and it's not working yet," Gagnon said.

Gagnon said it's time to stop the project for six months and consider shutting it down for good. He said investing that kind of money into wind power instead would save money and the electricity would be available faster.

Energy Minister Jack Keir couldn't believe the cost overun projections being made by Gagnon, or his suggestion to mothball the plant.

"Look, I have no idea where those numbers have come from," he said.

'Makes no sense to have a moratorium'

Keir said it will still cost more to stop the project than to try to finish it.

"I respect Dr. Yves Gagnon, but it makes no sense to have a moratorium because then all you are doing is adding $750,000 to $ 1 million a day to the total cost of the project," the minister said.

But Gagnon said Ontario gave up on that theory after paying three to five times what they should have to fix two old reactors.

Keir said he's trying to get the federal government to pay for the extra costs.

The refurbishment was orginally estimated to cost $1.4 billion, and was supposed to be completed by the end of September. But AECL has said it will be early 2011 before the reactor is back online.