Lepreau delays force Quebec to postpone work on its nuclear reactor

Shawn Berry
The Daily Gleaner
August 17, 2010

Lepreau delays force Quebec to postpone work on its nuclear reactor

Mounting delays to the refurbishment of the Point Lepreau nuclear reactor have prompted a postponement of similar work at the Gentilly 2 station in Quebec.

Hydro-Quebec announced Monday that it’s putting off the $1.9-billion project until 2012. It was to begin next year.

The electricity giant said it made the decision so it can benefit from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s solutions to problems that have put the Point Lepreau work more than 21/2 years behind schedule.

It’s a move that could bolster New Brunswick’s argument that the lessons learned from delays at Lepreau will help AECL’s efforts elsewhere.

Problems involving seals on joints in calandria tubes have been encountered during AECL’s work at Lepreau and the Wolsong reactor in South Korea, which like Gentilly 2 are Candu-6 reactors.

Officials with Hydro-Quebec expect the lessons learned from those two projects will benefit the work at their plant by avoiding those same delays.

“We hope that by looking at what’s been learned, we will be able to come up with a schedule and a work plan that can be met because solutions have been found for the problems encountered at Point Lepreau and Wolsong,” Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Marie-Elaine Deveault said Monday, speaking in French. “We want to develop a schedule that is realistic and will be respected.”

In the meantime, Gentilly 2 will continue to churn out 675 megawatts of electricity every hour. That means Quebec may be able to avoid additional costs of generating replacement power.

That’s likely to add ammunition to the New Brunswick government’s arguments for federal compensation because of the lengthy delay.

Premier Shawn Graham and Energy Minister Jack Keir have been pressing AECL and the federal government to compensate New Brunswick for the delays. New Brunswick has been saddled with the cost of buying replacement power during the refurbishment, something that’s expected to drive up costs close to $1 billion.

Keir, who was unavailable for comment Monday, has said he believes AECL is responsible for the extra costs that will otherwise have to be carried by NB Power.

“The sand on the beach changed in September 2009 when Hugh MacDiarmid, the president of AECL, said ‘I look at that schedule in the contract and it never had any chance for success,’ ” Keir said in an interview last week.

Part of the rationale Keir and Graham have put forward is that AECL will apply the lessons learned on Lepreau to other nuclear reactors, which will benefit the Crown-owned nuclear power company.

AECL and NB Power have been exchanging information in order to assess the delays and costs.

To date, federal leaders have indicated only that “AECL will honour its contractual obligations to complete the project.”

According to the agreement, NB Power is to cover the cost of replacement power.

Deveault said an inspection conducted during an annual maintenance shutdown earlier this month found that the state of equipment at Gentilly 2 was satisfactory to continue generation.

Hydro-Quebec said the postponement will also give it time to secure assurances about who might eventually own AECL.

The Becancour, Que., nuclear power plant is that province’s only nuclear reactor. The 25-year-old plant produces enough energy to power 270,000 homes.

Norm Rubin, director of nuclear research for Energy Probe, an energy issues think-tank, said he isn’t surprised by Quebec’s decision.

“I don’t expect it to go ahead, but then I was surprised when New Brunswick decided to go ahead,” he said. “I think the message is pretty clear: The next time you get a report from your own utilities board that says it’s a loser to invest in something nuclear that has a track record that looks like the underside of a rock, the next time you get that advice, take it.”

In a 2002 decision, the former New Brunswick Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities recommended against the refurbishment, saying there was “no significant economic advantage to the proposed refurbishment project.”

Hydro-Quebec isn’t facing the same problem as New Brunswick in terms of buying replacement power. While Lepreau accounts for about 30 per cent of New Brunswick’s power generation, Gentilly 2 accounts for about three per cent of Quebec’s total production.

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