Point Lepreau is a nuclear power plant just across the border in Saint John, New Brunswick. Next month its operating license expires, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is considering whether to renew it for another five years. While that’s not a long amount of time for a 30-year-old plant, there are passionate arguments for and against its operation and implications for an entire region.
Back in the 1950s, an U.S. Atomic Energy Commission film, “The Magic of the Atom,” was meant to ease the anxiety people might feel about living and working near a nuclear power plant.
“Today, if you were to take a trip in almost any direction across our great country, you might suddenly come upon a sign like this: Atomic City,” the film’s narrator says.
But after the 1979 disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, nuclear plants developed a more sinister reputation, and ever since, facilities like Point Lepreau have been battling that legacy.
“Well, many of the people that live around here also work here, so it’s helpful that they’re inside and have an understanding of the place,” says Paul Doucet, the communications manager for Point Lepreau.
Doucet’s role is vital in shaping the way the plant is perceived. Lepreau, he says, does everything it can to be a good neighbor, share reports and information and learn from past mistakes.
“Really it’s about educating and monitoring and being transparent,” he says.
Plus, the plant employs about 900 people and represents a third of NB Power’s total energy mix. Point Lepreau’s ability to kick out energy at around 8 cents per kilowatt-hour also helps keep New Brunswick power bills low.
But still, there are some who are speaking out against the facility’s license renewal.
“The health risks are too great. There is no way to make nuclear safe,” says Willi Nolan of Kent County, New Brunswick.
Nolan says she has made it her business to follow up on past major nuclear accidents, and she says the potential devastation to the environment is a deal breaker.
“I just spent some time with four survivors of Fukushima and I’m told, you know, after the worst-case scenario happened there, that there are now people dropping on the streets, 30 years old, 40 years old. We’re still not finished with Chernobyl. There are still human health effects, cancers, childhood conditions,” she says.
When it comes to a nuclear plant meltdown, there are two basic zones of concern: the critical emergency zone that extends for a 10-mile radius, and then what’s known as the ingestion pathway. That spans a 50-mile radius and, in the case of Lepreau, would include communities such as Eastport, Calais, Lubec and East Machias.
But how much do emergency responders in those towns know about nuclear events?
“Very little,” says Mike Hinerman, who runs Washington County’s Emergency Management Agency.
Rural Maine’s emergency teams are well-versed in snowstorms, spring floods and the occasional wildfire. But nuclear events are more of a mystery.
“Nuclear is something that I’m not trained in. We take our cue from Augusta, from the scientists, from the communications system of New Brunswick, and basically we do what we’re told,” Hinerman says.
Everything, he says, would depend on an accurate flow of information from Point Lepreau to the Canadian Emergency Measures Agency to Maine’s Emergency Management Agency in Augusta, and then to him, where he could start the prescribed response.
According to MEMA, the 25- to 50-mile zone would likely not include an actual evacuation, based on the guidelines set by nuclear safety regulators. However, after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, Americans living within a 50-mile radius were advised by U.S. officials to get out.
Mark Hyland of MEMA says historically, nuclear events have been “slow-motion emergencies” when they happen.
“Even though we’ve got plans — we’ve got some pretty sophisticated plans, traffic control plans, evacuations plans, things like that — we have a lot of time to put those things into motion,” he says.
And both Hyland and Hinerman agree that evacuating a rural place like Washington County would be easier in some ways because of its small population. There would be less road congestion. It could also be challenging because of the county’s reliance on volunteer fire departments.
But the biggest problem, experts say, would come in the weeks, months and years after the event, because anything grown in or harvested from that 50-mile ingestion pathway could be tainted — for decades.
“What do you do with apples? What do you do with fish? What do you do with clams?” says Robert Gardiner, MEMA’s technological hazards manager.
Gardiner and his colleagues at MEMA have created a special survival guide for farmers and food processors, should anything happen at Point Lepreau.
“Obviously for Washington County, that’s a very big concern,” he says.
Gardiner says a major Point Lepreau event would devastate the county’s economy, affecting everything from shipping at Eastport to aquaculture, forest products, fishing, fir tipping, hunting and tourism, and, of course, the region’s wild blueberries. But that’s a worst-case scenario, something Point Lepreau plant executives say is unlikely and which they work hard every day to avoid.
Point Lepreau Vice President Brett Plummer says he thinks every major nuclear accident could have been avoided with a better safety culture in place. And to ignore other benefits of nuclear power, he says, is shortsighted.
“Our license should be renewed because this is a very important facility for New Brunswick. We are nonemitting from a greenhouse gas perspective,” he says.
As more nuclear plants such as Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim cease operations, Plummer says, wind and solar will try to get a piece of the action, but not enough to keep a lid on carbon emissions. He’d like to see another nuclear plant come to Maine to fill the hole left by the former Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, but he doubts it will happen.
“Because I don’t think the political fortitude is there in the U.S. At some point they’re going to be looking to Canada to supply the extra power, because we were somewhat shortsighted in the U.S. in shutting down those nuclear power plants, and I think they’ll have to feel some pain before they actually make any kind of commitment like that,” he says.
Plummer is a Maine native who worked at Maine Yankee before it was decommissioned in 1997. He says Canada would be positioning itself for a clean-energy future by relicensing Point Lepreau.
While critics insist that the disaster risk doesn’t justify those benefits, it’s the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission that will have the final decision.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.