UPDATE: Ten-year license granted for Point Lepreau

NB Power photo The Point Lepreau Nuclear Generation Station.

UPDATED June 23, 10:35 a.m.: Canada’s nuclear safety regulator is granting NB Power a license to operate the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station for at least another decade. 

The decision, which the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission announced Wednesday, was less than the unprecedented 25-year license the Crown utility was seeking and a big disappointment to the Passamaquoddy, which wanted the renewal limited to three years with plans to shut down the near 40-year-old nuclear plant. 

The Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick (CRED-NB) and the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) says the decision erodes trust in the nuclear regulator, noting that the average license length granted over the life of the plant was less than three years.   

In a statement, the two groups called the longer licence period “a blatant attempt to reduce community engagement and involvement.”  The public interest would be better served with a shorter licence and more frequent hearings to offer feedback on the nuclear operation, they added. 

The announcement came a day after National Indigenous Peoples Day. The Passamaquoddy’s traditional territory includes Point Lepreau, where the nuclear reactor is located, about 50 kilometres west of Saint John. The First Nation argued at hearings on the license extension in May that a longer licence period disrespects their rights to care for the land in their unceded territory and creates the prospect of more toxic nuclear waste. 

The commission said it considered written and oral submissions from nearly 250 intervenors and NB Power, along with commission staff, which recommended a 20-year extension. 

“After reviewing all submissions, the commission concluded that NB Power is qualified to carry on the activities that the renewed licence will authorize,” it said. “It also concluded that NB Power will make adequate provision for the protection of the environment, and the health and safety of persons.” 

With respect to NB Power’s request for a 25-year license, the commission said it concluded a 10-year license was appropriate, given “the strong public interest in the hearing process and the need to advance reconciliation with Indigenous Nations and communities.” 

NB Power’s current five-year license to operate Point Lepreau, Atlantic Canada’s only nuclear plant, was set to expire at the end of June.  

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MACES BAY – Two local stances on the fate of Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station couldn’t be more different.

As regulators consider an NB Power request to grant an unprecedented 25-year license to operate the nearly four-decade old nuclear power plant, the Passamaquoddy are intervening to urge that only three years be granted – with that time used to figure out how to shut it down and clean up the site.

St. George Mayor John Detorakis, a retired nuclear energy engineer, thinks Point Lepreau’s life should be extended beyond 25 years and is pushing for the province to build two more nuclear plants just like it.

“We know how to build the Lepreau Candu design well, and we learned from the errors that have been made during the past 40 years,” he told the Courier. “That is a major advantage.”

The Passamaquoddy’s traditional territory includes Point Lepreau, where the nuclear reactor is located, about 50 kilometres west of Saint John.

The First Nation, led by Chief Hugh Akagi, outlined its concerns at hearings the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) hosted in May. The CNSC is expected to rule on NB Power’s request by the end of June, when the current license expires.

Chief among the Passamaquoddy’s worries is the potential for fresh hazardous waste being deposited on their land without their consent and the possibility of a “near-surface” disposal of nuclear waste on the Bay of Fundy.

Kim Reeder, a consultant with the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group, says they were blindsided by NB Power’s request.

“Until the NB Power application was submitted, we had no idea they would be applying for a 25-year license – in the approximately 40 years of operation, the average license length has been 2.44 years – so that was really quite an unfortunate surprise,” she said.

She says the group’s intervention has gotten a lot of support from around the Maritimes and Maine, as well as Ontario, where communities are in the midst of licencing hearings for a controversial proposal to build a nuclear waste disposal facility at Chalk River, 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

“We are concerned that we, too, may someday be faced with the province and NB Power also attempting a ‘near-surface’ disposal of nuclear waste on the Bay of Fundy, since there are no other plans for dealing with the contaminated construction waste when the plant is decommissioned,” said Reeder.

Ahead of the hearings, the nuclear commission staff recommended a 20-year license, which would give NB Power time to figure out how to refurbish the plant and extend its life or decommission it.

NB Power’s position is that a 25-year license aligns with what is anticipated to remain of the current operating life of the station.

Dominique Couture, a spokeswoman for NB Power, says another extension is an option.

“The Canadian industry has shown there are technically viable ways to continue operations for several years up to and including a potential second refurbishment,” she said. “Of course, these options require careful examination, public input and assessment to determine the best path forward for New Brunswickers.”

Point Lepreau, Atlantic Canada’s only nuclear generating plant, could have been mothballed in 2008, but instead underwent a $2.4-billion refurbishment that was a billion over budget and beset by years of delays.

The plant produces 705 megawatts, enough to power a third of New Brunswick’s energy needs.

Detorakis says he believes NB Power has a strong case with its request. The retired Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission engineer made his own case with a PowerPoint presentation at the hearings.

“There is a lot of talk about converting our cars to EVs (electric vehicles) and I am not sure how that can happen when we will need to double NB Power’s power generating capacity to achieve that,” he said.

The province is betting that so-called small modular nuclear reactors – about the size of a large big box store – will be the solution. But so far, they’re only in a development phase. Adding the smaller reactors at Point Lepreau would be years away, if they ever get built. The current target is early- to mid-2030.

That’s why Detorakis favours replicating Point Lepreau.

“Developing a new technology has always risks for big delays,” he said.

Two Saint John-based upstarts, ARC Clear Energy and Moltex Energy, are vying to build small modular nuclear reactors. The reactors aren’t within the scope of the commission’s current decision in the license extension and would be licenced separately if built.

Reeder says the Passamaquoddy and NB Power might have found some common ground on the decommissioning and dismantling of the Milltown Dam in St. Stephen, but the First Nation and Crown utility are miles apart on nuclear power.

She says the commissioners were attentive to each intervenor at the hearings but added that many influences are at play.

“My hope is that the commission will decide to do the right thing,” she said. “I was taught to expect the best of people. Therefore, I expect the rights of the Peskotomuhkati will be protected. I expect this decision will honour the treaties and adhere to the commitments Canada has made regarding reconciliation, as well as those set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.”

The best evidence of that would be the approval of an operating license for no more than three years, with conditions that mandate a complete revamp of NB Power’s preliminary decommissioning plan and financial guarantee, says Reeder.

“The decommissioning plan and associated guarantee is inadequate as compared to international decommissioning experience.”