Radioactive spill at Point Lepreau Nuclear Station

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NB Power officials say a radiation alert at the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station Tuesday was caused by a small spill in the reactor building.  The spill occurred as the reactor’s moderator system was being filled with heavy water as part of NB Power’s plan to restart the generating station, which has been undergoing a lengthy and expensive refit.

Kathleen Duguay, a spokeswoman for NB Power, said the spill occurred in the reactor building.  She didn’t know the exact amount, but said it was “minute.”

The reactor building was evacuated about 4 p.m., immediately after the alert was initiated, according to procedures, said Duguay.

The station has been shut down for nearly four years for refurbishment and the utility is refilling equipment with heavy water as it gets ready to restart, spokeswoman Kathleen Duguay stated in an email.

“Preliminary information indicates that a small spill occurred within the reactor building,” she said. The heavy water is radioactive.  She said workers in the area were wearing protective suits at the time and were not exposed.

Lepreau was taken offline in March 2008 for an overhaul that was supposed to take 18 months. But the project has been plagued by cost overruns and delays and is now not expected to return to service until the fall of 2012.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is overseeing the refurbishment.

The province has pegged the total cost overruns, including replacement power while the nuclear reactor is offline, at about $2.4 billion.


Alarms from the sensitive detectors have been common in the last two weeks, as the reactor equipment is being refilled, this is the first time the reactor building was evacuated, however, Duguay said.


“When we transfer heavy water to the moderator system, it is not out of the ordinary for our radiation monitoring equipment to record any presence of tritium. This is contained inside the reactor building.”

“We plan for various contingencies and have appropriate plans in place to address these potential events should they arise,” she said. “We have highly qualified and trained staff in the area of spill response.”

Licence up for renewal

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is currently considering NB Power’s application for a new five-year operating licence for Point Lepreau.

Earlier this month, several groups attended public hearings to oppose the licence. The New Brunswick Conservation Council contends the plant can’t be licensed because it doesn’t meet new earthquake standards adopted for nuclear stations after the disaster in Japan in March.

Point Lepreau, Atlantic Canada‘s only nuclear reactor, is undergoing a $1.4-billion refurbishment.

It was originally expected to be back generating power by September 2009, but Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., ran into problems.

Several of the 380 calandria tubes that were installed were leaking and had to be removed. The problem tubes have since been replaced and tested.  The tubes are approximately six metres long and 13 centimetres in diameter, and will contain the reactor’s fuel channels and fuel bundles.

It is estimated that NB Power spends $1 million a day to purchase replacement fuel for each day the nuclear reactor is delayed.




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