Lepreau’s Lament

Moncton Times Transcript
June 20, 1997

Can NB Power count on its aging nuclear plant for power well into the future? The utility thinks so, but a spokesman for a watchdog agency has doubts:

Plagued by operational glitches and costly shutdowns, the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station has suffered through its worst year since it was commissioned 13 years ago, but NB Power is confident it can turn around the fortunes of the plant the flagship of its electrical power generating fleet.

Stung by an Atomic Energy Control Board report earlier this month that called for “urgent action” to improve safety performance management, NB Power has launched a program to improve operational and human performance procedures at Lepreau and appointed a veteran utility employee to make sure it is carried out.

Rod White, named this week as the utility’s new vice-president in charge of the plant, says the Atomic Energy Control Board has raised the bar in terms of its expectations for Lepreau’s operation.

“What the board has said. . . is the reactor is safe and we have operated safely in the past year,” said White in a telephone interview. “The concerns they have expressed are ones they see in the indicators that there is a need for improvement, that some of the safety culture issues may be slipping from a level that we should be operating at, and they’d like us to pay attention to them at an early opportunity,” said White, who until this week was general manager in charge of NB Power’s overall electrical generation.

Those “indicators” include some 30 incidents reported to AECB in 1996 by NB Power where the board said the utility failed to comply with the terms of its operating licence. The board said 20 of those events directly involved personnel error.

In fact, throughout its report, the board attributes many of Lepreau’s woes to human error something White indicated NB Power is aware of and is addressing.

NB Power is targeting several areas for improvement: “safety awareness for our staff, human performance issues either in terms of training or the standards that we set for our people,” White said.

White said operational procedures will also be tightened so they conform to “the way we want work done, so the results are more predictable.”

Ensuring “predictable results” is crucial because when Lepreau goes down it hurts.

Two major shutdowns at Lepreau last year cost the utility about $14 million for repairs and about $60 million to buy replacement power.

NB Power counts on the nuclear power plant to produce 30 per cent of its electrical generation and the plant displaces between $100 and $150 million in fuel oil costs annually. Lepreau also contributes between $150 to $200 million in cash flow each year from power sales outside New Brunswick. “So its important for us to make sure that station runs to meet its long-term mandate,” said White.

NB Power is counting on Lepreau operating at 85 per cent efficiency to meet the goals set out in its five-year plan to reduce its huge $3.4 billion debt. A stable Lepreau is also crucial if NB Power wants to compete in the coming era of a more open marketplace for electrical power.

“We know we have technical issues with Lepreau in the longer term that need to be addressed and that’s one of the reasons why we also have an external organization that’s doing a technical and economic study,” said White. That external expertise will come from Hagler Bailly of Colorado a consulting company well respected within the industry and which has oodles of experience in dealing with issues in utility design and operation. Hagler Bailly is now looking at “how Lepreau will perform its role in the future for NB Power and the issues that may affect it.”

“For example, we know we have pressure tube issues, we know we have feeder tube issues. There are certain technical resolutions to those you need to plug those into your operating model for your power system and see how you make decisions in the future,” White said.

White said it will take between one and three years for NB Power’s improvement plans for Lepreau to have an impact. “They’re not something you turn around and do overnight usually. There are easy things you can do, like reducing (maintenance) backlog those are fairly easy.

“There are more difficult things that you do that’s actually changing the way people think and work and do things that’s part of the human performance issues that you have to deal with,” he said.

But there is one enemy that Lepreau and all nuclear reactors can’t beat, and that’s age, says Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe of Toronto, an environmental watchdog agency specializing in energy matters. NB Power is similar to other utilities in its belief that fixing the people problem and improving maintenance procedures will address most concerns, Adams said in a telephone interview.

“Aging has very pernicious effects that are often difficult to judge and what you often get from the nuclear utilities is kind of an enthusiastic engineering attitude where they’ll say ‘look we’ve identified six problems that have definitely contributed and we’re confident we can fix those problems.’ that’s the process they go through.”

The difficulty with that, Adams said, is that the problems utilities know about now don’t correspond with the universal problems that are unfolding.

“Aging is a very surprising phenomena it keeps catching you from behind,” he said. “If you had perfect foresight, you might be able to ward some of these things off, but they get caught with things they didn’t think needed to be addressed.”

In NB Power’s case, Adams said the utility’s entire five-year business plan which is coming up for review by the provincial legislature’s standing committee next week is predicated on the assumption that Lepreau will rebound, that it will bounce back to the “good ole days.”

“I’m just concerned that those good ole days are gone,” he said. Adams believes what is needed is some “level-headed” planning on how to get reasonable value out of Lepreau over the next few years without “blowing the budget. . . .and keeping it safe.”

But Adams views as very positive the move by NB Power to seek outside advice by hiring Hagler Bailly.

“The utility has been too insular in past, closed to outside input and the fact that they are calling on outside people that’s very positive and they deserve credit for it.”

But in the end, Adams firmly believes the aging process will be Lepreau’s downfall, and he points to the experience in the United States where nuclear reactors get to their mid-20s in age and “they just get shutdown.” “And sometimes it’s not one big problem that gets them its death by a thousand cuts.”

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