New Brunswick

Sleeping giant: NB Power nuclear plant down for repairs again

NB Power's Point Lepreau generating station is down again, bringing the number of lost operating days to more than 600 since it underwent a major refurbishment that finished in 2012.

Generating station has lost 600 days to maintenance since refurbishment  — double what NB Power estimated

Point Lepreau is the largest source of electricity in New Brunswick but has struggled with reliability since emerging from refurbishment in 2012. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

NB Power is hoping to have the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station back in service this week following a shutdown nine days ago caused by a stubborn steam turbine problem that triggered a separate 40-day shutdown, including a fire, in late January. 

"The current mechanical issue related to the turbine steam system did contribute to the January outage," NB Power's Dominique Couture wrote in an email about the current shutdown. Repairs are "underway," she said, and it is hoped the station will be back in service soon.

The latest shutdowns push the number of days Lepreau has been offline for maintenance or repairs since coming out of refurbishment to 609, a total the plant originally wasn't supposed to reach, at worst, until 2030.

According to NB Power estimates, every unscheduled hour of downtime at the nuclear plant costs it $50,000.

Lepreau is NB Power's largest electricity producer and most important generating station. 

It was built in the early 1980s and then refurbished beginning in 2008 to extend its operation life for an additional 27 years. The renovation encountered numerous problems and ran three years late and $1 billion over budget. The plant returned to service in late 2012.

Lepreau has been identified by NB Power management as the key to the company's financial health, but after encouraging signs of improving production at the plant between 2017 and 2020, problems have been resurfacing.

There's no chance it's going to make it to 2040 without significant problems.

The two most recent forced shutdowns follow a longer-than-expected maintenance outage at the plant in September that was scheduled to last six weeks but eventually stretched to nearly nine.

Green Party Leader David Coon said given the track record so far he doubts the plant will be able to operate reliably until 2040 as NB Power plans.

"There's no chance it's going to make it to 2040 without significant problems," said Coon. 

"We've got an aging, refurbished, although not entirely refurbished, power plant. And we're going to continue to see problems."

Green Party Leader David Coon says given the power station's track record, he doubts it will be able to operate reliably until 2040, as NB Power plans. (CBC)

Like the current problem with a steam line, most of Point Lepreau's troubles have occurred in the non-nuclear side of the plant, much of which was not refurbished at the time reactor components were being replaced.

At hearings in 2002 and again in 2012, NB Power presented evidence to the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board and its predecessor, the Public Utilities Board, to show many plant components were in good enough shape not to be replaced and, if properly maintained, would not cause operational problems.

"Major equipment was evaluated with specific focus on items which would not be economically feasible to refurbish or replace," NB Power wrote in a 2012 report about its analysis of equipment that was not upgraded during the refurbishment of the plant.

"The recommended inspection of these components was completed during the refurbishment and confirmed the conclusions that no major component condition would limit the design life" of the nuclear generating station.

The analysis was optimistic.

Shutdowns hurting NB Power's finances

Multiple problems, malfunctions and breakdowns attacked the plant on its non-nuclear side following refurbishment and forced it offline at rates double what was expected. 

At hearings in February 2020, NB Power's chief financial officer, Darren Murphy, acknowledged that Lepreau's record of breaking down more than expected has been the single largest weight dragging down the utility's financial results.

NB Power chief financial officer Darren Murphy said the primary driver of poor financial performance for the company has been the performance of the Point Lepreau station since coming out of refurbishment. (CBC)

"If we think about what have been the primary drivers that have led to sub-par [financial] performance the last number of years, we can point to Point Lepreau's performance coming out of the refurbishment," said Murphy. 

"Unfortunately, it did not perform as we would have liked."

That eventually led to an aggressive multi-year campaign by the utility beginning in 2016 to upgrade Lepreau with more than $500 million in capital improvements.

It appeared to work with increased reliability after 2017, culminating with the plant running for 417 consecutive days in 2019 and  2020, its longest period of uninterrupted operation in 25 years.

"These measures have proven successful," the utility declared just last fall. 

However, the latest two outages have been another financial setback. 

Coon, who appeared at the 2002 refurbishment hearings to argue against the project, believes with the plant getting older all the time, future problems are more likely, not less.

"It's part and parcel of an aging nuclear power plant," said Coon.

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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