Problem maintenance outage at Lepreau nuclear plant adds to N.B. Power money troubles
Costly spring shutdown of Point Lepreau nears day 100
A troubled maintenance outage at the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station that began back in April has dragged on a month longer than planned and is adding to the financially challenged utility's money troubles by the day.
N.B. Power expects Lepreau will be back in service sometime next week after what has turned into a 100-day outage, but with key work left unfinished. This work will require additional downtime next spring to fully complete.
According to N.B. Power communications officer Dominique Couture, supply and personnel shortages and more significant problems with station equipment than anticipated have all undermined the plant's quick return to service.
"Some of the challenges experienced included supply chain issues impacting parts delivery and skilled labour availability," wrote Couture in an email to CBC News.
"As well as with any planned maintenance that involves testing and inspecting equipment, it is difficult to precisely project outage duration until you have taken the plant offline and opened the systems and equipment up for further inspection."
Point Lepreau is N.B. Power's most important generating station, but its reliability has been a frustration since it emerged from a 4½-year, $2.4-billion refurbishment in late 2012.
In its annual reports, N.B. Power claims unscheduled outages at the nuclear plant cost the utility's bottom line between $28,500 and $45,700 per hour depending on the time of year and market conditions, plus the cost of required repairs.
According to filings with the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board, Lepreau has experienced 8,000 more hours of downtime than projected since 2012, not including the current outage.
That has been a major factor in N.B. Power missing corporate profit targets for the last six years in a row and failing to execute on plans to reduce its debt load.
In a third-quarter financial update released in February, N.B. Power reported its net debt hit $4.97 billion on December 31, 2021. That's $40 million higher than last year and $810 million above levels it had projected for itself just six years ago.
"If we think about what have been the primary drivers that have led to subpar performance or not meeting targets in the last number of years, we can point to a number of important components [including] Point Lepreau's performance coming out of the refurbishment," N.B. Power vice-president of finance Darren Murphy said in 2020.
"We have talked about that on a number of occasions the fact that unfortunately it did not perform as we would have liked coming out of refurbishment."
N.B. Power plans spring maintenance shutdowns at Lepreau every other year to try to keep the station in top condition, but aims to keep those events short and focused.
The utility does not hesitate to approve large amounts of overtime for employees when it comes to getting the nuclear plant back in service as quickly as possible, Diane Fraser, N.B. Power's director of financial planning, explained at rate hearings in 2020.
"One of the main drivers for the increase in overtime has been associated with outage projects," Fraser said.
"Getting Point Lepreau back online is top priority because of the value that it adds to the overall state of the financials."
This year's spring outage was originally planned for 60 days. It began on April 9, but is already at day 98 with some significant work still not complete.
Plans now are to get Lepreau back in service next week and then shut it down again next April for another 22 days to deal with the unfinished work.
"A major equipment replacement scheduled for the 2022 outage was delayed due to supply chain issues, which required us to plan a short outage for 2023 to ensure predictable, reliable station operations going forward," wrote Couture.