Fire / Feu

Il est temps
d’arrêter la
valse des

Jusqu’à présent, les questions énergétiques étaient habituellement étudiées en fonction de la demande énergétique et non par rapport aux quantités d’énergie qui peuvent être conservées ou utilisées plus efficacement.  

Dès 1992, les études du groupe de conseillers Marbek ont estimé qu’environ 1 000 mégawatts d’énergie étaient gaspillés au Nouveau-Brunswick.  Toutefois, le gouvernement de l’époque n’a pas tenu compte des recommandations d’établir une stratégie d’utilisation plus efficace de l’énergie afin de réaliser les épargnes répertoriées.  
Bien entendu, ce potentiel de conservation d’énergie existe toujours aujourd’hui. 

Les considérations économiques sont toujours un facteur important à examiner.  Concrètement, tout comme dans les autres réacteurs nucléaires, celui de Pointe-Lepreau a du faire face à sa part de problèmes techniques et d’erreurs humaines.  Les déchets nucléaires de la centrale demeurent une question hautement controversée qui est au cœur du débat social à propos des enjeux du nucléaire.  Nous devrions sortir du coûteux bourbier nucléaire alimenté par de dangereux experts pour entrer dans une phase de récupération économique stimulante et plein de potentiel immédiat et futur sous l’influence des citoyens.  

Il est temps pour le Nouveau-Brunswick de prendre la bonne direction et de sortir du nucléaire.  N’hésitons pas à accepter les changements nécessaires.


Point Lepreau: It's time to
stop the waltz of billions!

Dr. Ronald Babin
Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies,
Université de Moncton
December 2003

Generally, energy issues are usually thought about in terms of increased demand for energy and not in terms of the amount of energy that can be conserved or used efficiently. For preserving organizational power of a public utility this may be seen as the best way to go, but is it in the best interests of society and the environment? 

(photo: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

To begin answering this timely question, let us consider the following for New Brunswick. In the early 90's, the provincial government began considering energy policy in view of increasing energy efficiency and promoting conservation. Their first step was to commission Marbek Resources Consultants to identify the potential. In 1992, the completed Marbek study estimated the amount of wasted energy in NB to be around 1000 megawatts. The government of the time however, never acted on the report's recommendations to establish an energy efficiency strategy to actually achieve some of the savings identified.

Such a potential is still there today and constitutes a very significant source of energy quite easily saved and put to other uses with the help of available environmentally appropriate technologies. This potential is also much more than the 630 megawatts produced by the Point Lepreau nuclear reactor, thereby offering us a window of opportunity for considering not a costly attempt at refurbishing but rather the closing of the Point Lepreau reactor which is less an asset and more a burden and a problem for New Brunswickers. It also increasingly appears to be a more dangerous nuclear installation than previously thought, as has been acknowledged by the authorities who recently increased the danger zone around Point Lepreau.

Economical considerations are always an important element to be considered, now and in the past. In the early 70's, the Hatfield government's decision to go forward with Point Lepreau was taken in the context of rising energy prices and of promised nuclear energy "too cheap to meter". The province's initial cost resistance was overcome by the Federal government's January 1974 decision that Ottawa would finance 50% of a province's first nuclear power plant. Shortly after, in February, NB announced that it was going nuclear.

The first site considered was in the Acadian peninsula, near Anse Bleu, where a very strong and determined public opposition developed and won the day. The second site, in Point Lepreau, seen as being able to accommodate four reactors, was essentially forced on the local people who were also very critical and wanted a public debate on this question. The government refused, stating that the decision had already been taken for technical reasons and was irreversible. This fait accompli approach and non-democratic process became the object of strong public criticism that led quickly in 1974 to the formation of the Maritime Energy Coalition, one of Canada's first regional antinuclear organizations.

(photo: CBC News, Point Lepreau)

The initial estimates for the cost of this reactor in early 1974 were in the range of 400 million dollars. This was quickly re-evaluated at 700 million dollars in May 1975, with work to be finished in 1979. Lepreau only became operational in June 1983 and was critiqued as a major technological project that came in with very large time and cost overruns, having a final cost of 1.4 billion dollars, excluding interest payments to be paid over the years.
This also gave way to significant financial problems for NB. Ottawa was willing to pay 50% of the cost estimate of 700 million, not 50% of 1.4 billion. This left NB much less enamoured with the nuclear option as this issue was never resolved in the province's favor and turned out to be the beginning of NB Power's large debt load that now stands at over 3 billion dollars. A second reactor was also never ordered, partly because of public opposition and partly in order not to relive such an episode. Lepreau was also developed without the U.S. participation that had initially been envisaged and this led to below cost exports across the border, thus further undermining the economics of the project.

From early on, the Point Lepreau nuclear reactor was shown to the world as a showcase for the export of Canadian CANDU reactors. The main objective was to emphasize high performance levels that for a time were somewhat impressive in regards to competing U.S., European and Russian nuclear reactors. We have now learnt that apparently NB Power cut some corners in order to maintain such high levels of performance. This also seems to have led to an organizational culture of nuclear recklessness that increasingly worried the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) in the 90's and contributed to ongoing frictions between NB Power and AECB. The latest AECB (now the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission-CNSC) licensing process was somewhat of an arduous process for NB Power and CNSC is still monitoring intensively.

On a practical level, as with other reactors, Lepreau has had its share of technical and human induced errors and problems, some of which are still quite disquieting, such as the thirty 4 cm screws from a temporary forgotten wooden cover that was sucked into the calendria upon start-up of the reactor after yet another shutdown. The wood floated and was recovered, but not the screws! Now a more fundamental technical flaw is overtaking Canadian nuclear reactors, one that was foreseen and denounced early on by antinuclear scientists and environmentalists but expertly dismissed by pro-nuclear scientists and technocrats eager to promote this sector and its various career opportunities. In fact, as a result of intense heat, radiation and chemistry in the reactor core, key nuclear reactor metal structures (calendria tubes, pressure tubes and feeder pipes) are increasingly becoming brittle and weak, thus shortening the reactor's expected full useful life of 30 to 40 years by around half. It is this premature aging that explains NB Power's current public promotional efforts for a very costly and never before attempted rebuilding of these nuclear reactor key components in order to extend beyond a reactor's useful life. NB Power now says that this will cost 845 million dollars, well beyond initial cost estimates of 500 to 700 million dollars. Probably very much more if the past is our guide. And if successful, for how many years of useful life? A more limited effort at the Pickering nuclear station, aimed at achieving full useful life (not extended life) by replacing mainly the pressure tubes, has already cost more than a billion dollars and has yet to be successful. This failed attempt to save Ontario's nuclear technology was also one of the main reasons for Ontario Hydro's financial collapse in 1997.

(photo: Turbines at Point Lepreau Nuclear Station)

Added to this waltz of billions is the eventual cost to dismantle a reactor, which is generally viewed to be around the price it took to build. A billion or more again for Lepreau? Other costs that remain somewhat hidden concern the unresolved safe disposal of massive amounts of radioactive nuclear waste for generations and centuries to come. Here and elsewhere, no one can tell for sure, but the costs to Canada and Canadians will again be many billions with the particularity that this will also constitute a huge liability handed down to future generations who will not view us kindly for this poisonous legacy.

Nuclear waste remains a highly contentious issue that goes to the heart of the ongoing societal debate around nuclear issues. In 1998, an eight year study, although suggesting that technically it was feasible, concluded that we could not go ahead with the underground burial of nuclear waste in the Canadian shield as Canadian society did not find this acceptable and did not approve. All along, nuclear developments have in fact pitted and imposed expert postulated technical feasibility against public and social acceptability. It is this pattern that has to change in view of the evident dangers and shortcomings of the nuclear option, a bad technological problem that will not be resolved with technology. We should get out of this costly and dangerous expert-led nuclearism and into a more environmentally and economically citizen-influenced recovery from this sector. This task is both challenging and full of potential for today and tomorrow. It is time for New Brunswick to get it right and to get out of the nuclear sector.
Let's begin the transition.