NB Power’s debt is 16 per cent of economy: watchdog

Mac Trueman
Telegraph Journal
April 1, 2002

“NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir said that by advancing Point Lepreau’s refurbishment date to 2006, NB Power made it hard for the Public Utilities Board to turn the refurbishment project down.” Photo credit: David Nickerson/Telegraph-Journal.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and NB Power are so financially imperiled that either or both could disappear before they finish refurbishing Point Lepreau, nuclear watchdog Tom Adams warns.

If that happens, New Brunswick could be stuck with a gutted nuclear reactor and piles of replacement machinery that nobody can put back together, Mr. Adams, executive director of the anti-nuclear group Energy Probe, said this week.

“You can’t rule that out.”

Atomic Energy’s future has been brought into question by a review ordered by federal Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal into whether Ottawa should continue its annual $100-million subsidy of the atomic reactor maker, which has sold only two generating plants since 1995.

“If we’re not making any sales, and there’s no potential,” Mr. Dhaliwal said early this year, “should we continue to invest in these areas or not?”

Mr. Adams contends New Brunswick’s power corporation has its own problems. Its debt equals 16 per cent of this province’s economy.

It owes $9,200 for every working New Brunswicker, he said.

By comparison, Ontario’s power industry owes only $6,400 for every employed citizen.

Even with debt fees taken out, New Brunswick has the highest operating costs per unit of delivered power of any utility in Canada, Mr. Adams said.

The figures cast doubt on the province’s ability to handle the $845-million cost of the nuclear rebuilding project it has placed before the Public Utilities Board, he said.

“NB Power’s track record and its current financial position are so weak that there is real question as to whether it can carry it off.”

The corporation’s financial plan depends on the refurbished Lepreau working so perfectly that even in the year 2031 – one year before it would wear out – it would operate at full power 96.3 per cent of the time, he said.

“They assume in their analysis that after retubing this reactor is going to work like a Swiss watch. But the evidence from other reactors that have been retubed is that they run like fireflies – wink on and wink off.”

Four Candu reactors at Pickering, Ont. suffered so many breakdowns after they were rebuilt that Ontario Hydro mothballed them, he said.

Gordon Dalzell, Saint John Citizens Coalition for Clean Air chairman, is calling on the province to order a health risk impact study similar to those it required for the Irving King of Cats oil refinery expansion and NB Power’s proposed conversion of its Coleson Cove thermal station to Orimulsion.

“The single biggest issue is that the public doesn’t know what are the health impacts from living near a nuclear facility,” he said.

But Sharon Flatt, Saint John chairwoman for the Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice, wants the hearing to consider all the pollution that results from nuclear power – from the uranium mine, to the power station, and to Canada’s not-yet-built storage facility for spent fuel.

“I think on a scale of one to 10, it’s right up there as the most dangerous, the most dirty of options around. Its ecological footprint is vast.”

NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir said that by advancing Point Lepreau’s refurbishment date from 2008 to 2006, NB Power has created an emergency that will make it hard for the Public Utilities Board to turn the project down.

The less time there is to choose and engineer an alternative power source, the harder the utility can argue that there is no choice but the nuclear one, she said.

“That is the political strategy NB Power is employing. And my concern is that the PUB won’t have the fortitude to call their bluff.”

NB Power officials says its Hagler Bailly engineering study done in 1998 recommended refitting Lepreau in 2006, but Ms. Weir said she has read the report and it recommends 2008.

New Brunswick Energy Minister Jeannot Volpé’s endorsement of the refurbishment will make it even harder for the utilities board to say no, Mr. Adams said. It “raises fundamental questions in my mind as to what is the purpose of the public review.”

John Bennett, the Sierra Club of Canada’s director of atmosphere and energy, is predicting the Point Lepreau tab will be double the $845-million Atomic Energy is now estimating.

“That’s based on 25 years of watching them make announcements and then build things and then admit what it actually cost later.”

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