New Brunswick

25-year renewal for Lepreau would be a first for Canadian nuclear plants

Leaders at the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station will try to make their case next Wednesday that they should be granted a record-setting extension to their operating licence.

N.B. Power to face regulator next week in first part of public hearings

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will decide if the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station should be granted a 25-year licence extension. It would be a first for a Canadian nuclear plant. (CBC News)

Leaders at the Point Lepreau nuclear power station will try to make their case next Wednesday that they have earned a record-setting extension to their operating licence.

"We're asking for a 25-year licence," said Jason Nouwens, director of N.B. Power's regulatory and external affairs.

"It will be a first in Canada."

The final decision will come down in June from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, or CNSC, but already, Nouwens said, the signs are favourable.

Jason Nouwens, director of N.B. Power's regulatory and external affairs, said even with a licence extension, Lepreau can be shut down at any time if necessary. (Submitted NB Power)

He said commission staff are very supportive of the bid in their written summary of Lepreau's performance. 

"They've clearly articulated that they believe we run a very safe station and that they have confidence in us."

Commission staff recommend 20 years

The staff report, which runs more than 330 pages, appears to raise no red flags.

Staff reviewed a wide category of subjects, from environmental safety to radiation exposure and waste storage, and seemed to find no serious faults.

However, they don't support a 25-year extension.

Instead, they're recommending a 20-year renewal that would take the plant to June 30, 2042.

The plant, which was built in 1983 at a cost of $1.4 billion, was refurbished in 2012.

"CNSC staff assessments demonstrate that a 20-year licence is more closely aligned with end-of-life decisions since the post-refurbishment life extension of the plant is approximately 25-30 years," says the report.

'They can shut us down anytime'

Nouwens said any renewal could be superseded by an order to shut down the plant at any time.

He said the regulator has an office on site ,and five to seven inspectors are present daily to make sure the plant is running according to the highest safety standards.

"They're very intrusive," said Nouwens.

N.B. Power officials have expressed some confidence the commission will agree with the application, but a recent report from the safety watchdog is recommending 20 years. (CBC)

"And although some people think this oversight might be very difficult, we actually value their insight."

The plant has also undergone two periodic safety reviews to ensure that staff are operating according to modern codes and practices.

The first was conducted after the plant was refurbished and another was completed last year.

"The commission has the authority to shut us down at any time if they feel there's something unsafe going on," said Nouwens.

Too big to fail?

N.B. Power said it doesn't expect the commission to reject its bid outright.

"We certainly don't anticipate the answer being a no," said Nouwens.

However, he said, it is possible that the commission would identify a specific problem that N.B. Power would then have to correct.

"If they had technical reasons, we would address that," he said.

But replacing Lepreau's output is no small problem.

The CANDU-6 reactor has a capacity of 705 megawatts.

It generates one-third of the power required for use in New Brunswick — the equivalent of running 333,000 homes for a year.

N.B. Power does not divulge who supplies replacement power during Lepreau outages, because those contracts are confidential. 

Nor would it say what kind of fuels — fossil or otherwise — are used as a substitute.

When the plant was taken offline a year ago, it cost N.B. Power between $8 million and $10 million per week.

Intervener hearings coming to Saint John

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says it values public engagement.

It has budgeted nearly $177,000 to support public participation, including two days of intervener hearings that are scheduled for May 11 and 12. 

They're expected to take place in person in Saint John unless the pandemic forces the hearings to go online exclusively.

A 25-year extension would allow the plant to operate until 2047. (Submitted NB Power)

The deadline to apply to participate is March 28.

However, the deadline to qualify for funding assistance has already passed.

Applicants had until Oct. 15, 2021, to apply for the funding program

Regulator, who?

The regulator has been warned about its public perception challenges.

In 2020, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission asked Canadians whether they knew the regulator existed and whether they had confidence in its ability to protect the public interest.

More than half of the 1,000 people surveyed said they weren't aware of the commission. 

Sixteen per cent said they had no confidence in the commission's ability to maintain its independence from the industry it regulates.

Another 22 per cent said they were unsure about that.

While there's been a lot of buzz about the prospect of developing small modular nuclear reactor technology in New Brunswick, N.B. Power said any application for approval to operate that technology would be completely separate from the Lepreau application that's before the commission now.