NUCLEAR POWER APPEARS to be making a bit of a comeback.
For decades, the trendlines have not been good, as aging reactors have found it difficult to compete against power generated by natural gas and overcome resistance from environmental advocates. Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vermont, shut down at the end of 2014. Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, closed five years later in 2019.
Today, only two nuclear power plants remain in the region – Seabrook Station in New Hampshire, built in 1990, and the two-unit Millstone plant in Connecticut, built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Neither plant is in great financial shape, but there appears to be growing awareness across the political spectrum at the state and federal level that existing nuclear power plants, with their emission-free electricity, have a role to play in the fight against climate change.
Congress has approved two tax credits to support existing nuclear power plants.
At a press conference earlier this week on Beacon Hill, representatives of conservative groups from all six New England states called for policymakers to ease up on renewable energy mandates, build more natural gas pipeline capacity into the region, and preserve the remaining nuclear power plants.
Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, is a big supporter of offshore wind and solar. But he, too, sees a need for nuclear power plants.
Roy, who toured the Seabrook and Millstone plants last year, said he intends to file legislation shortly that would allow the Healey administration to pursue the purchase of electricity generated by Millstone.
He acknowledges the concerns about nuclear waste, but says the plant already exists so it makes sense to take advantage of its emission-free power to help address climate change. “It would be a shame if we didn’t at least take a look at it,” he said.
In 2019, Connecticut lawmakers directed the state’s two major utilities – Eversource and United Illuminating – to negotiate long-term contracts for half of Millstone’s output.
Gov. Ned Lamont at the time characterized the purchase as a commonsense rescue mission. “Had this contract not gone forward, the facility would be in danger of closing down, which would have increased greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent across the New England region,” he said. “This important step keeps Connecticut and all of New England from back sliding on addressing climate change. Now we can renew our focus on offshore wind and other renewable energy resources to fully transition to a clean energy grid by 2040.”
Initially, the 10-year contract at a price of 4.9 cents per kilowatt hour increased consumer bills because the price of natural gas – the primary fuel used to produce electricity in New England — was so low.
But with natural gas prices now much higher because of the war in Ukraine, electricity customers in Connecticut are benefitting. Utility officials estimate the Millstone contract generated roughly $260 million in savings in 2022.
Gov. Maura Healey’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued a statement on background saying there currently is no authorization to direct the state’s utilities to procure existing nuclear energy generation.
But the statement pointed to a proposal issued this month by the Department of Energy Resources to create a Forward Clean Energy Market that would allow “states, local governments, companies, and consumers” to purchase clean energy, including nuclear power.
Under Massachusetts law, nuclear power is not considered renewable but it does qualify as clean energy.