Nuke plant rehab worries some Down East

Posted Feb. 25, 2009, at 9:19 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Worries about delays and “first-of-its-kind” technology used during the $1.4 billion refurbishment of a nuclear power plant just 30 miles from Maine’s border has the Washington County commissioners wondering if NP Power has an emergency plan that includes Maine emergency personnel.

That concern prompted the commission to send a letter to Gov. John Baldacci, asking about the state’s safety arrangements with the Point Lepreau plant.

The plant, which is near Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, was completed in 1981 and is undergoing a refurbishment, which was originally scheduled to be finished in September but may not be completed until December or later. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. of Mississauga, Ontario, is handling the refurbishment.

“The principal cause for the delay continues to be the retube activities performed by [Atomic Energy of Canada] using complex tooling developed for this first-of-its kind job,” said Christ Gardner, chairman of the Washington County commissioners, in the letter to Baldacci.

“First-of-its-kind is not necessarily the language the public would like to hear when discussing the refurbishment of a nuclear facility, especially when those performing the activities are not even successful at staying on schedule,” Gardner said.

On Tuesday the Governor’s Office issued a statement saying the governor “agrees that the county should have the ability to weigh in on this matter. He is working to ensure that through appropriate federal channels, the county can have input. His administration is investigating the process. The state of Maine enjoys a close relationship with New Brunswick, and it is crucial that we continue to work across the border on matters that impact our peoples.”

Right now the Washington County Emergency Preparedness Agency, which is responsible for countywide catastrophes, is out of the loop.

Mike Hinerman, director of the agency, said Tuesday that although the emergency management agencies in New Brunswick and Washington County have worked together in the past on floods and train wrecks, there has been no similar training in the event of a nuclear disaster.

“I have worked with the people on the Canadian side on other safety issues, but Point Lepreau is not one of them,” he said.

While no plan is in place detailing how U.S. and Canadian agencies would react in the event of an emergency at Point Lepreau, the state and province do work together.

Andy Morton, deputy commissioner for the province’s emergency measures organization, said Wednesday that the agency has worked with the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

“If we are running an exercise here or an operation, MEMA is one of our neighbors and therefore we share our situational information with them so they are aware of what we are doing. So if there are implications cross border, then the local agencies would work together as best they can to resolve any issues that may occur,” he said.

Morton noted that the plant was not a threat to Maine residents. “Primarily the winds that affect Point Lepreau would not normally take anything towards the state of Maine,” Morton said, referring to radioactive materials that might be released in the event of an accident.

Asked about a possible leak since Point Lepreau sits next to the ocean, Morton said that also would not be a problem. “It would be diluted so much the risks would be pretty minimal,” he said. “Certainly that is not an immediate risk; there is a longer term risk and obviously there would be monitoring that would be taking place on both sides of the border.”

MEMA spokeswoman Lynette Miller said Wednesday that the work going on at Point Lepreau does not pose a threat risk to the state.

MEMA is updating its general protocols for dealing with nuclear emergencies, she said. “So we will be working with Washington EMA as well as the different state agencies, the environmental health folks, the state police, the [Department of Transportation],” Miller said.

The plant at Point Lepreau includes a CANDU-6 pressurized heavy water reactor that uses natural uranium as its fuel source, the company says in a fact sheet. Construction on the facility began in May 1975 and was completed in 1981. CANDU stands for Canada Deuterium Uranium.

“This is the first CANDU-6 reactor refurbishment project, which is expected to extend the life of Atlantic Canada’s only nuclear power plant by 25 to 30 years,” according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news Web site. “AECL is hoping to market these refurbishment projects to other CANDU-6 reactor facilities around the world.”

The refurbishment is not experimental, Heather MacLean, spokeswoman for NP Power, said Tuesday. “It is the first CANDU-6 to be refurbished, but there are other CANDUs being refurbished,” she said. “We started planning for this as early as 2005, if not before, so there was an extensive preparation of planning as part of this.”

Although she agreed the project was behind schedule, she said safety is a priority for the company. “There haven’t been any safety concerns for us,” she said.

Gardner was not convinced.

“Some of our more specific concerns surround the safety assurances of the project and most importantly we must have an absolute understanding of disaster preparedness,” Gardner said.

MacLean said Wednesday that the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization handles emergency issues and that the country’s regulatory agency, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, has people on site every day at Lepreau making certain safety measures are followed.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Wednesday in a statement that it was “vital that the United States and Canada maintain a mutual respect for each other’s actions and decisions in regard to energy policy and be cognizant that our energy polices must be built on mutual respect and collaboration. The Washington County commissioners have the right to provide input into an issue that may have an impact on the county and I appreciate their comments on this issue. Clearly, by maintaining an open line of communication and continuing to work with our neighbors, we can achieve compromises that yield results to the benefit of both countries.”

Gardner noted that the province was not shy when it raised safety issues concerning the siting of a liquefied natural gas terminal in Washington County. Three companies have proposed building LNG facilities in eastern Washington County — Downeast LNG in Robbinston, Calais LNG and Quoddy Bay LNG at Pleasant Point.

“We are hopeful that New Brunswick is as mindful of the hazards their projects may pose to the people of Maine so much as they demand we are mindful of the people in New Brunswick,” Gardner wrote. “A nuclear incident approximately 30 miles away from Washington County would be catastrophic and for any of us to not have a current and immediate response plan would be reprehensible.”

bdncalais@myfairpoint.net

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