FREDERICTON – New Brunswick political leaders have questions about the federal government’s plans for the federal nuclear agency.

A brief yet important mention of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in yesterday’s federal throne speech has New Brunswick Finance Minister Greg Byrne wondering what the effect will be on the costs of replacement power required due to the delayed refurbishment of the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station.

The provincial government says AECL should be held legally responsible for the nearly $1 million per day it’s costing to buy replacement power while the Point Lepreau reactor is offline. Those costs weren’t accounted into the project’s original $1.4-billion budget, which is now about a year and a half behind schedule.

Altogether, the provincial government has estimated that it will cost about $400 million for replacement power if the project is completed at its current pace.

Yesterday’s throne speech said more investment would be made toward “clean technologies” with the goal of positioning Canada’s nuclear industry “to capitalize on the opportunities of the global nuclear renaissance.”

To do that, the government said investments would be made to see a complete restructuring of AECL.

Byrne said more specifics are needed about how restructuring at AECL would affect the Point Lepreau project in progress, along with its replacement power costs. He said he’d be watching today’s federal budget for those answers.

“We want to ensure under the budget that AECL has sufficient financial commitment to be able to finish the refurbishment commitment,” he said. “And of course we’re going to be looking to the federal government to cover the costs associated with the cost overruns there as well.

“Obviously, we have put the federal government on notice that we are expecting a contribution in respect to those cost overruns.”

The provincial government has threatened legal action if that doesn’t happen.

Earlier this week, Byrne said he had concerns about what the federal government planned to do in terms of making equalization payments to the ‘have not’ provinces (New Brunswick is one of six) and whether there would be any reductions in those payments.

Byrne said the province’s payment, almost $1.7 billion in 2009-10, is about a quarter of the provincial budget.

“We’ll be waiting on (today’s) budget to seek clarification on the federal government’s approach to equalization,” he said.

Opposition finance critic and Progressive Conservative Riverview MLA Bruce Fitch said he too would be looking for more details about the AECL restructuring plan, as well as details about provincial equalization payments.

Fitch also applauded the federal government’s plan to introduce legislation freezing the salaries of the prime minister, cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and senators.

Fitch said the Tories in New Brunswick pitched the same plan, which was carried out by the provincial government and extended to all civil servants.

Byrne also applauded the federal wage freeze, but wouldn’t say if Ottawa’s move would lead to an extension to New Brunswick’s two-year freeze, which will soon enter its second year.

“When we look at our next budget, I think everything has to be on the table,” said Byrne. “At this point I don’t want to indicate we’re looking at a further measure in terms of restraint to the civil service.”

The throne speech also made mention of cutting internal government spending by reviewing government programs and trimming the fat. Finding efficiencies and getting rid of redundancies in federal programs would contribute to cutting the deficit, said the Conservative government.

Brian Murphy, the Liberal MP for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, said he’d be asking questions and keeping a close eye on what’s meant by such program reviews, and furthermore what impact might be felt by local programs.

“The devil is in the details and we do need to know what they mean by trimming the deficit through the realignment of programs,” said Murphy last night from Ottawa. “I don’t know what this means to ACOA (the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency), Atlantic Canada or Moncton in general.”

Murphy also expressed doubt about how a bid to cut the deficit would in lead to a continuation of the federal government’s popular Home Renovation Tax Credit, which was part of the Conservatives’ economic stimulus program.

While the throne speech said the stimulus program would go ahead in its second year, no specific mention was made about the tax credit program, which gives non-refundable tax credits for home renovations.

“I don’t expect them to renew it in any meaningful way,” said Murphy.

Through the throne speech, the federal government said they planned to implement free trade agreements with Peru and the European Free Trade Association, and would additionally ask Parliament to ratify new agreements with Colombia, Jordan and Panama.

The speech said similar agreements were also in the works with other countries.

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based public policy organization, said that plan could be one of the biggest boons to the entire Atlantic region.

“I think that’s going to do more for the Atlantic Gateway than any cheque they’d cut to Saint John or Belledune,” he said.

The Atlantic Gateway is a federal-provincial strategy meant to create a strong trade and transportation link to the Atlantic region from the rest of North America and beyond.

Cirtwill also said a one-line mention in the throne speech to “introduce new legislation to reform Canada’s outdated system of fisheries management” had the potential to be big in this region.

“It’s a pretty powerful line,” he said. “It’s going to be fascinating to see how that plays out.”