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New Brunswick nuclear reactor returns to service

Newly refurbished Point Lepreau nuclear station is expected to last another 27 years.

Canadian Press

Atlantic Canada's only nuclear power plant returned to commercial operation Friday for the first time since March 2008, when it began a major refurbishment that later became plagued by repeated delays and massive cost overruns.

New Brunswick's Point Lepreau reactor resumed generating power following a refurbishment that was scheduled to last 18 months and cost $1.4-billion. Instead, the project took three years longer than expected and cost the province's Crown utility company an extra $1-billion.

NB Power president Gaetan Thomas issued a statement saying the generator is expected to last another 27 years because of the refurbishment.

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"It's a foundational piece of our domestic energy supply and our export sales, and provides rate stability and the financial flexibility to now begin reducing debt," Mr. Thomas said.

Ed Barrett, chairman of NB Power's board of directors, said he hopes to pay down the company's $4.6-billion debt by $1-billion over the next decade.

"The completion of this project allows us to begin this pursuit in earnest," he said in the statement.

Provincial Energy Minister Craig Leonard has said Point Lepreau is critical to the province's goal of generating 75 per cent of its electricity from clean, renewable or non-emitting sources by 2020.

The power plant was commissioned in 1983 and was the world's first Candu-6 reactor to begin commercial production of electricity.

It was also supposed to be the first Candu-6 to complete a major refurbishment, but problems during the project repeatedly delayed completion.

One of the biggest lessons to be learned was how to properly replace the plant's 380 calandria tubes, which house fuel channels and uranium fuel bundles that power the reactor.

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The first effort by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to install the tubes failed when tiny scratches caused by wire brushes raised concerns that joints might not be reliable for 25 years. The tubes had to be removed and reinstalled.

AECL, a federal Crown corporation, benefited from that lesson when it began a similar refurbishment of the Wolsong-1 reactor in South Korea, Mr. Thomas has said.

The refurbishment of the Candu-6 at Wolsong began in April 2009 – a year after the start of the Lepreau project – and ended in July 2011.

New Brunswick governments of both Liberal and Progressive Conservative stripes have tried in vain to convince Ottawa to shoulder the extra costs of the Point Lepreau refurbishment, arguing the province should not be on the hook for AECL's delays climbing the learning curve of fixing a Candu-6 reactor.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not budged, saying only that his government will abide by the terms of the contract to refurbish the reactor.

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