New Brunswick

Reliability problem resurfaces at Point Lepreau nuclear plant

NB Power's finances are once again under pressure after Point Lepreau suffers a surprise breakdown less than 11 weeks after it emerged from a major maintenance outage.

Lepreau had been setting production records until breakdown took it offline two weeks ago

The Point Lepreau nuclear generating station appeared to have its reliability issues resolved in the last two years, but a surprise problem nearly two weeks ago shut it down once more. (Submitted by NB Power)

NB Power's finances are once again under pressure after a breakdown of the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station less than 11 weeks after it emerged from a major maintenance outage.

The incident has triggered costly repairs and replacement energy bills that are likely to approach $20 million, although the utility doesn't think that will be enough to wipe out corporate profits for a second year in a row.

"At this stage, NB Power is continuing to project positive earnings at year end," NB Power spokesperson Marc Belliveau said in an email.     

"However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, NB Power will continue to see fluctuations."

NB Power has had an up-and-down year financially, and a full winter season of energy production from Lepreau would have contributed significantly to a positive bottom line.

A bone-dry summer reduced production from NB Power's hydro dams by $30 million between April and September, and the pandemic led the utility to delay a rate increase by 12 months – another $30-million expense. 

A lack of rain in New Brunswick last summer dropped water levels and cost NB Power $30 million in reduced hydro generation at its river dams. (Shane Fowler/CBC News file photo)

The utility has benefited this year from lower natural gas prices and recovering investment returns on the hundreds of millions of dollars it holds in nuclear decommissioning and other funds, but problems at the nuclear station represent another step in the wrong direction.

Lepreau went offline during the weekend of Jan. 16, after a non-nuclear problem developed with "equipment supporting the turbine system." 

The failure occurred even though the plant had just come through a two-month maintenance shutdown that ended in November and had included inspections, maintenance and upgrading of the turbine system.

Belliveau said the problem that led to the plant shutting down involved equipment that had been worked on during the fall, but it's still not known exactly what went wrong.

"The cause is still under investigation," he wrote.

According to NB Power estimates, shutdowns at Lepreau cost it between $8 million and $10 million per week, depending on the cost of supplying replacement energy. That does not include the expense of fixing whatever caused the outage.

NB Power is hopeful of posting a profit this year after losing $16 million last year, its worst result in a decade. Shutdowns at Lepreau cost the utility between $8 million and $10 million per week. (Mike Heenan/CBC News file photo)

Reliability issues an ongoing frustration

Lepreau's reliability has been an ongoing frustration for NB Power since the plant emerged from a four-and-a-half-year, $2.4-billion refurbishment in 2012.

It produced only 90 per cent of the electricity expected of it during the first seven and a half years after refurbishment, shorting the utility about $200 million in electrical production.

In addition, NB Power has spent more than $500 million on capital improvements at Lepreau since 2012, in part to try to improve its spotty post-refurbishment reliability.

"Unfortunately it did not perform as we would have liked coming out of refurbishment," NB Power vice-president and chief financial officer Darren Murphy said of Lepreau at hearings last February.

However, he noted, "past performance is not a good indicator of future performance" for Point Lepreau.

"We have made some significant investment. The performance has paid off as a result."

NB Power has to rely more on its Coleson Cove oil and petroleum coke-burning generating station for electricity when Lepreau is offline. It costs 19 times more in fuel to generate the same amount of electricity. (Matthew Bingley/CBC News file photo)

Plant expected to be back up and running soon

Over the last two years, there was a feeling at NB Power that Lepreau's reliability troubles were behind it.

The plant ran for 310 consecutive days for the first time in a quarter-century between May 2018 and April 2019, and then had an even longer run of 417 consecutive days between July 2019 and September 2020.

The utility is hoping the plant returns to that form once the current incident is fully resolved.

Late Wednesday, Belliveau said repairs are complete and Lepreau should be up and running soon.

"Work is underway to perform the prerequisite activities to reconnect the plant to the grid over the next few days, " he wrote.   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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