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NB Power seeks unprecedented 25-year licence for Point Lepreau nuclear power station

FREDERICTON — The licence for Atlantic Canada's only nuclear power generating station expires in June, and the New Brunswick Crown corporation that operates the aging CANDU-6 reactor is seeking to renew it for an unprecedented 25-year term.
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FREDERICTON — The licence for Atlantic Canada's only nuclear power generating station expires in June, and the New Brunswick Crown corporation that operates the aging CANDU-6 reactor is seeking to renew it for an unprecedented 25-year term.

The last two licences to operate the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station, located about 40 km southwest of Saint John, N.B., were for five years each.  

"We are asking for a 25-year licence, which would be a first in Canada, based on some improvements that the regulator has made, but also on the very strong safety and reliability performance that we've seen from all the Canadian nuclear stations," Jason Nouwens, director of regulatory and external affairs for NB Power, told reporters in a briefing on Friday.  

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has scheduled the first phase of the application hearing on Wednesday in Ottawa.  

Gail Wylie with the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development called the request for a 25-year licence "really absurd."

Wylie will be one of the public interveners when the safety commission holds the second phase of the application hearings in Saint John in May.  

"We are very much interested in renewable energy because we know it's clean and we know the problems and history of nuclear energy here," she said in a recent interview. "Nuclear inherently has got its risks and the radioactive waste."

Wylie said she's concerned that extending the life of the 660-megawatt nuclear generator will slow the transition to what she calls cleaner and cheaper forms of renewable energy.

Point Lepreau opened in 1983 and operated until 2008, when it closed for a major refurbishment intended to extend its lifespan by 25 years. It was reconnected to the power grid in October 2012.  

Wylie said NB Power's request for a licence until 2047 exceeds the lifespan targets that were announced after the refurbishment. She said she plans to ask questions about how the utility is dealing with staffing levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, threats of cyberattacks, and impacts of climate change.   

Wylie also wants to know about how plans to develop advanced small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) on the Lepreau site will impact the operation of the main reactor. Two companies, Moltex and ARC, are working with NB Power to develop the portable reactor technology.  

Nouwens, however, said the licence application doesn't include development of SMRs.  

"The re-licensing process for Point Lepreau is completely separate from any licensing process for SMRs," he said. "Our 25-year licence renewal covers the scope of what's currently at Point Lepreau and what the plans would be for our current station operations."    

Saint John-based clean air activist Gordon Dalzell was a longtime opponent of nuclear energy, but his position has changed.

Dalzell said he believes there's a role for nuclear power to play in helping meet energy demand as the province tries to transition to more renewable sources such as wind and solar.  

Still, he believes a 25-year licence renewal is too long.  

"It's in the public's interest for maybe 10 years," he said in a recent interview. "That's when we're going to learn a lot more about the small modular reactors and their development and their relationship with Point Lepreau."

But Nouwens is defending the 25-year request, noting that many other countries have longer licence terms. The United States, he said. awards 40-year licences for new nuclear reactors.   

He said the safety commission has permanent staff on site at Point Lepreau who can shut it down if they feel anything is unsafe.  

Like Wylie, Dalzell said he also plans to ask questions about climate change and about how Point Lepreau's location on the shore of the Bay of Fundy could be affected by sea-level rise and extreme weather events.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2022.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press