The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is considering whether a 34-year-old nuclear power plant just across the border from Maine should be relicensed for another five years.
Point Lepreau may not be as well known to Mainers as Seabrook Station in New Hampshire, with a significant urban population nearby. But with Maine ports, fisheries and farming all within a 50-mile radius of Lepreau, there’s a lot riding on the operation of the plant, which won’t be decommissioned for another 25 years.
At the end of a breezy peninsula jutting six miles into the Bay of Fundy rises a gray concrete tower and a complex of industrial buildings. It’s the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station.
It’s an odd bedfellow for the surrounding coastal marshes and grasslands which serve as an important stop for migrating birds.
Visiting a nuclear plant is a safety intensive experience unlike any other. An initial checkpoint and security screening gets you onto the grounds. Inside, there’s another security check, and then communications officer Paul Doucet hands me some forms to fill out, which must include a contact address.
“Personal one,” he says, when I ask whether I should provide my business or personal address. “And I’ll tell you why. We will, um, send you some information about your visit.”
More on that in a second.
There are a few more procedural hoops, and we’re joined by Tony Munn, who is responsible for the facility and for me. I can’t be out of his line of site at any point. Munn gives me a second badge along with a little purple device:
“You keep it in your upper torso on the outside, so you can put it on your jacket for now and then we’ll switch it,” he says. “It’s a TLD. It measures your gamma beta dose.”
That is, how much radiation I’ve encountered. That’s the “information” that Doucet referred to earlier. In the coming days, I’ll get a letter telling me the number, but Munn says he’s confident the radiation dose will be a flat zero.
Next, I’m given some blocky, unstylish shoes to wear, safety glasses and a hard hat, and the tour begins.
Some nuclear basics: Lepreau works by generating heat through the fission of uranium, rather than the burning of coal, gas or another fuel. That heat is used to boil water to produce steam, which then flows to the turbine room.
“So you see, we have a high-pressure turbine, three low-pressure turbines and the main generator,” says Lepreau Vice President Brett Plummer.
Plummer explains that the turbines power the generator, which makes electricity. The plant, he says, has only just come back online after 29 days of downtime for maintenance.
“So we’re constantly improving, making modifications. We actually took this high pressure turbine casing off, and we looked at the turbine blading, and the spindle on this HP turbine last outage, making sure we didn’t have any cracking, everything was in good shape, which it was,” he says.
But the turbines, the steam and the generator are not what scare people.
“It’s the waste. If you can find a way to solve nuclear waste so that it’s not going to be harmful for generations to come, maybe can have a discussion,” says Hugh Akagi.
About 30 miles away, Akagi has showed up at a Nuclear Safety Commission hearing in St. John to argue against Point Lepreau’s license renewal on behalf of the Passamaquoddy Nation. Dozens of industry executives, regulators and almost 100 registered speakers are also weighing in.
Akagi says he finds the entire process frustrating. The tribe has members living on both sides of the border, but Canada does not recognize the Passamaquoddy as an official First Nations group. That means the entire nation, which straddles the border, has little leverage in the proceedings, even though the Pleasant Point reservation in Maine is well within the 50 mile zone of concern should there be a radiation release.
Akagi says it feels like the process stacks the deck in favor of industry.
“To promote the facility, they need all morning, but for us to defend the land, we get 10 minutes,” he says.
All 95 interveners are given 10 minutes to present their views to the commission. The majority, who favor relicensing the plant, range from individuals to businesses who appreciate the savings on their power bills, although those rates have gone up 2 percent this year.
Those speaking against include the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Migma and environmental groups like Greenpeace. Their issues range from the philosophical to historical, environmental and economic, with important fisheries just offshore.
Back at Lepreau, we’ve reached the part of the plant that so many find scary, problematic or at least mysterious: the reactor.
“So you can see there’s a Zone 3 where we have whole body monitors, that yellow area is the barrier, and in order to get into that area you need additional radiation protection devices,” Plummer says.
So, we’re not actually going beyond the yellow barrier where the CANDU-6 Pressurized Heavy Water reactor lives. It “burns” the isotope U-235 from natural uranium. Atoms from the U-235 are split, releasing energy and making heat.
But only a tiny fraction of the uranium that goes into the reactor can be used. The rest goes out as waste for long-term storage. At the moment, it’s being stored on-site. Plummer says eventually it will need to be transported to another location, yet to be determined, and that will spark another round of hearings.
Getting out of the plant is just as hard as getting in. All coats, hats, glasses and all my gear must be put inside a monitoring box and swept for particles of radiation.
We prepare to go through the next two levels of security, which includes a rather sci-fi full body radiation scan. Another checkpoint, another card swipe, another monitor and we’re back.
Point Lepreau has had a few problems in recent years. One was aging infrastructure, which led to a $3.3 billion refurbishment that was completed in 2012. But since then, the plant has not been able to hit its performance targets, operating at just 78 percent capacity annually.
So, seeing the extreme vigilance required, the extensive and expensive maintenance needed, coupled with the possibility, however remote, of a truly catastrophic meltdown, why would anyone do this? In part two, we’ll look at some of those reasons, and what a disaster would mean for Maine.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.