Extended Point Lepreau shutdown underscores costly reliability issues

NB Power has acknowledged more unexpected repairs at Point Lepreau forced it into a round-the-clock extension of its annual spring shutdown. The nature of the repairs remains a mystery.

NB Power hasn't said what was discovered at the station that needs additional work

NB Power officials have said Lepreau shutdowns beyond 40 days cause productivity problems among overworked staff. (CBC)

NB Power has acknowledged more unexpected repairs at Point Lepreau forced it into a round-the-clock extension of its annual spring shutdown.

This is coming in the same week the federal Liberal government said it isn't responsible for compensating New Brunswick for the poor performance of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. during the Point Lepreau nuclear plant refurbishment.

"The 2018 outage was extended by one-and-a-half weeks after the identification of additional work during inspections and maintenance," said NB Power spokesman Paul Doucet in an email to CBC News.

NB Power has not said what was discovered at Lepreau that required "additional work," but it forced the plant to remain idle for 53 days before coming back online last week, well beyond limits the utility has set for the station.   

NB Power managers have said Lepreau shutdowns beyond 40 days cause productivity problems among overworked staff and drive up replacement energy costs because spring hydro production in New Brunswick begins to recede in mid-May.

NB Power has plans to spend an additional $432 million on capital improvements at Lepreau over the next five years. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"It was found to be more efficient and more effective that instead of having one longer outage to have annual outages in the 20, 25, 30-day range," said Michael Hare, NB Power's deputy chief nuclear officer, during testimony in front of the Energy and Utilities Board this past March.  

"That was both from an equipment point of view, what we could accomplish, as well as a human point of view in trying not to extend outages where the efficiencies were not as great as people got tired." 

This year's shutdown was scheduled to begin one week after Hare's testimony and last 35 days, but it eventually dragged on for 53.

Expensive shutdown

Lepreau outages cost NB Power $200,000 per day in staffing overtime alone with substantially more than that required to replace the energy the plant normally produces.

A number of areas were to be addressed during this year's outage, including integrity tests of Lepreau's steam generators and leak tests of its containment building, but it is unknown if either of those were the source of the additional downtime.

The cost of extending the shutdown has not been disclosed, but Doucet said it will save NB Power money if it prevents future problems.

"When we discover issues after having entered shutdown state, going ahead with repairs while we are in the best state to complete those repairs is often the best decision to ensure safety, quality and sustained reliability once we return to high power," he said.  

Still, unexpected problems have been a familiar story at Lepreau.   

We were expecting to perform probably better than what we did.- Perry Cheeks, NB Power's director of nuclear business services

NB Power has been battling production and reliability issues since the plant came back online in 2012 following a long and troubled refurbishment.

Perry Cheeks, NB Power's director of nuclear business services, told the Energy and Utilities Board in March that the utility anticipates it will have spent up to $150 million by 2021 to address "equipment liability issues" discovered since the refurbishment ended.

NB Power also has plans to spend an additional $432 million on capital improvements at Lepreau over the next five years to ensure it can operate as expected until its retirement in 2039.

"We were expecting to perform probably better than what we did," Cheeks told the EUB about what has happened since Lepreau came back online in 2012.

"Equipment reliability was not at the state it maybe should have been."

Increasing downtime

Problems encountered during the recent shutdown only add to Lepreau's unscheduled downtime and production shortfalls.

Since the refurbishment, the station has been out of service for repairs and maintenance at least 200 days more than expected, reducing its planned production in excess of $200 million. 

NB Power has been battling production and reliability issues since the plant came back online in 2012.

Although last year was the nuclear plant's most productive, its output was still 10 per cent below original NB Power projections made following the refurbishment.

Blaming the contractor

Three successive New Brunswick governments have blamed Lepreau's problems on Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which acted as the refurbishment contractor.

The renovation was expected to take 18 months, cost $1.4 billion and leave NB Power with a plant that was expected to run nearly flawlessly — up to 97 per cent capacity in some years. 

Instead, the renovation ran three years late and went $1 billion over budget and performance has been nowhere near expectations.  

Because AECL is a federal Crown corporation, New Brunswick premiers Shawn Graham, David Alward and Brian Gallant all insisted Ottawa should pay "full" compensation for cost overruns, but they have been unable to make that happen.

Last week, even as Lepreau was coming back from its latest unexpectedly long shutdown, Ottawa said there is no plan for federal compensation.

"In its discussions with New Brunswick, the Government (of Canada) has been consistent in its position that this is a contractual issue between AECL, New Brunswick Power, and their insurers. As such, it would not be appropriate to comment further," said a statement released by Natural Resources Canada.

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.