Problem at Point Lepreau nuclear plant could prolong 3-month outage, drive up costs

An unexpected issue at New Brunswick's nuclear power plant could mean it will be offline longer than scheduled, potentially driving up costs for the province's Crown utility company.

N.B. Power says it has already completed planned maintenance work that was expected to take the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station out of operation for 100 days.

But just as crews were bringing the plant back online, an "issue" was identified in the plant's main electrical generator, N.B. Power spokesperson Dominique Couture said in an email.

"The team, along with a number of industry equipment experts, are currently troubleshooting the problem. After investigation and troubleshooting is complete, we will have a better understanding of the impact on the outage schedule and budget," she said.

The planned outage began in April, and Wednesday marked day 95, Couture said.

She said N.B. Power has replaced key equipment during that time in order to make the station more reliable and improve how it performs.

But with the issue discovered in the main generator that feeds the electrical grid, the station outage "may extend beyond the initially planned 100 days," she said.

EUB hearings focus on Point Lepreau issues

The problem at Point Lepreau comes as the province's Energy and Utilities Board hears evidence this week about the plant's declining reliability.

N.B. Power wants to set aside millions of dollars to deal with unplanned Point Lepreau outages. The board now has to decide whether the utility should be allowed to increase power rates by almost 20 per cent to help the utility keep up with its debt payments and cover expenses.

At a hearing this week, an industry consultant testified that it's "reasonable" to budget for more unplanned outages at Lepreau in the coming years.

Marc Miller said recent costly refurbishments helped the nuclear reactor's reliability for a while, but it's been underperforming in the last few years. It's ranked as a poor performer compared to similar reactors, he said.

N.B. Power said it wants a contingency of $5.6 million this year and $7 million next year to make up for unplanned outages. It's forecasting 13 unplanned outage days this year and around 21 days next year.

Toronto lawyer Glenn Zacher has been hired by J.D. Irving Ltd. to represent it at N.B. Power's rate hearing. He asked a series of pointed questions about whether N.B. Power has been inflating expected costs related to the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station this year and next year.
Toronto lawyer Glenn Zacher has been hired by J.D. Irving to represent the company at N.B. Power's rate hearing. He asked a series of pointed questions about whether N.B. Power has been inflating expected costs related to the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station this year and next year. (Stikeman Elliott LLP)

Glenn Zacher, the lawyer representing J.D. Irving, previously suggested that N.B. Power is exaggerating Lepreau's unplanned outage days. This week, Zacher questioned Miller on his methodology and findings about the reactor's reliability.

Zacher asked how Miller could predict 21 days of outages when the five-year average for Lepreau was closer to 16 days.

Miller said the average number of unplanned outage days is just one element he considered, calling his estimate "a conservative and reasonable forecast based on past performance, not just the average performance, but the variability in that performance."

Previous delays in planned work

According to N.B. Power, this year's planned maintenance outage was expected to cost the company a total of $137 million.

Another planned outage is scheduled for next year and is anticipated to last up to 35 days and cost the utility $33 million.

Couture said any extension to the current outage would result in additional costs, depending on a number of factors, including replacement power costs and the repairs required.

If an extension is needed, it would mark the sixth planned outage at the station since 2018 to suffer delays and go over its budget.

Previous planned outages dragged on longer than expected in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022, and cost N.B. Power a combined $202 million more than expected, worsening its troubled financial situation.

Information about extra costs from this year's shutdown will be reflected in the company's financial results, Couture said.