New Brunswick

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission opens public hearings in Saint John

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has started hearing from the public on the future of Lepreau. 

Indigenous groups object to renewing Lepreau’s licence for a record 25 years

Citizens start to address a four-member panel of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in Saint John on Tuesday. This is the commission’s first in-person public hearing since March 2020. (Rachel Cave/CBC News)

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has started hearing from the public on the future of Lepreau. 

New Brunswick's nuclear power plant, which generates as much as 40 per cent of the province's home-grown power supply, will see its operating licence expire in June. N.B. Power is asking the federal regulator to approve a renewal for 25 years. 

On Tuesday, some Indigenous interveners urged the commission to reject that request. 

They said N.B. Power has not fully addressed the concerns they've raised about the duty to consult with First Nations or  the questions they have about the plant's safety and decommissioning plans. 

Kim Reeder of the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group Inc. says the group “had to think long and hard about whether we would participate again" in the commission hearings. "But we’ve decided to show up … to advance this conversation.” (Graham Thompson/CBC News)

Passamaquoddy ask for 3-year renewal 

The Passamaquoddy Recognition Group, a non-profit organization that represents the Peskotomuhkati, whose traditional territory includes Point Lepreau, is asking the commission to renew the licence for three years. 

For one thing, they say, 25 years is far outside the normal.

Only three of Canada's five nuclear power plants have been renewed for a full decade: Darlington, Bruce and Pickering.

Lepreau's 15 renewals since it started operating in 1982 have mostly been two years long. 

"We're asking only that you maintain the status quo," said Kim Reeder, who works for the PRGI. 

Any licence renewal will result in "fresh new hazardous waste" being deposited on traditional land without their consent, said the group.

And going 25 years without a public hearing would go against the spirit of meaningful engagement, said Chief Hugh Akagi.

"We're losing the voice of a generation," he said. 

Canadian nuclear consultant Gordon Edwards was engaged to help write the Passamaquoddy’s written submission to the commission. (Graham Thompson/CBC News)

Where's the money to shut down?

Experts hired by the Passamaquoddy said N.B. Power has not set aside enough funding to dismantle the Lepreau reactor, dispose of its nuclear waste and return the site to its natural state. 

"The bottom-line cost … translates to about $1.83 billion, expressed in 2022 Canadian currency," concluded Gordon Edwards, a nuclear consultant and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

"That's two-and-a-half times larger than the financial guarantee that the commissioners are being asked to approve in the present hearings."

N.B. Power says it is required to report every year to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission on the status of the decommissioning financial guarantee. 

The utility says the total value of N.B. Power 's 2020 financial guarantee was $755 million against a funding requirement of $714.5 million.

And as of March 2021, the actual amount of the guarantee was $842.8 million.

N.B. Power’s senior health physicist Jennifer Allen, centre, says Lepreau does release more radioactive tritium than other Canadian CANDU reactors. (Graham Thompson/CBC News)

Elevated tritium

The Passamaquoddy say their experts have also flagged that Lepreau releases higher levels of radioactive tritium than any other Canadian reactor.

Commission president Rumina Velshi tried to press N.B. Power to explain what was being done about that. 

"For the last four years … it's an increasing trend," said Velshi, referring to the data in the written submission. "There is no fluctuation. It's just going up from 2017, '18, '19 and 20." 

"You didn't explain why there is a difference between Lepreau and other CANDU reactors. What are you doing to eliminate the source and change the trend?"

CBC asked to interview Jason Nouwens, N.B. Power's director of external affairs, to explain and elaborate on some of what was said in response to Velshi, but the utility said the commission had prohibited N.B. power staff from giving media interviews outside commission proceedings. 

The commission later said that N.B. Power was mistaken. The only people who cannot be interviewed during a hearing are commission members and commission staff. 

During proceedings, N.B. Power did admit that it does release more tritium than its peers. 

Senior health physicist·Jennifer Allen said elevated releases do occur when N.B. Power performs activities on its moderator system, but levels are monitored daily and workers are protected.

"We recognize that this is a significant radiological hazard — not just from an environmental perspective but also for the workers who have to perform maintenance on these systems as well," she said. 

Nouwens told the commission that increases do result from proactive maintenance but they're always planned in terms of ALARA, the acronym in the nuclear power industry for doing everything possible to reduce radiation exposure to "as low as reasonably achievable".

Mi'kmaw say 5 to 10 years long enough

Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Incorporated, a group created by Mi'kmaq First Nations, said a renewal of Lepreau's licence for five to 10 years would be appropriate.

"N.B. Power was unable to articulate the clear advantage of securing a 20 or 25-year licence rather than a 10-year licence," said their submission. 

"MTI shares the Commission Members' concerns that a longer licence duration may negatively affect both public perception of the Commission's oversight, and opportunities for meaningful engagement with First Nations and other communities." 

While recognizing N.B. Power's efforts to engage Mi'kmaw rights holders, MTI noted that more was needed to increase First Nations' confidence in the Point Lepreau Nuclear project. 

They are calling for Indigenous people to be involved in environmental monitoring.

They're also asking that all decisions involving Lepreau be made with guidance from Indigenous knowledge, which they defined as the body of knowledge, practice and beliefs handed down through generations. 

Hearings end Thursday

The public hearings will continue Wednesday and run until midday Thursday.

Wednesday's agenda includes presentations from the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, the Musquash Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, the Canadian Nuclear Association and the CANDU Owners Group.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Incorporated supported a licence renewal of 15 years. In fact, the group said a licence for five to 10 years would be appropriate.
    May 11, 2022 4:03 PM AT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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