Advantages and challenges of nuclear power

While the state focused on an approaching freak late-October snowstorm, one that would devastate a large swath of Connecticut's power grid and raise serious questions about reliability and emergency response, a report was quietly released that could have more important long-term implications for the creation and cost of electricity in the state.

There is a certain irony that the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering released its report on Oct. 26. For the next two weeks media attention focused on electricity (or more accurately the lack of it), while the report "Advances in Nuclear Power Technology," went virtually ignored.

It concludes that expansion of nuclear power could provide the best means to meet the state's energy needs in the long term, do so without creating greenhouse gases, and supply needed energy-generation diversity.

If one or more new plants were built, the logical choice would be at Millstone Power Station in Waterford, where Dominion operates two reactors. It has the transmission infrastructure and is located in a region that would not view nuclear power as some alien presence.

Yet the authors of the report also recognize that the impediments are significant. No federal depository is available to accept the highly radioactive waste that is a byproduct of nuclear power. Financing the construction would be difficult. And nuclear power remains unpopular with an ill-informed public.

Academy

Chartered by the state legislature in 1976, the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering is a private nonprofit corporation patterned after the National Academy of Sciences. It advises state government and industry "in the application of science and engineering to the economic and social welfare." It has a reputation for objectivity and its report, requested by the Connecticut Energy Advisory Board, deserves serious consideration.

The report recognizes fuel diversity as critical to stabilizing electricity costs in Connecticut. Almost all power plants built in New England during the past decade use natural gas as their primary fuel. That gas must be imported. It is highly vulnerable to price spikes. Natural gas sets the market price and sets it high for Connecticut.

Connecticut's electricity rates have been the highest in the continental United States since 2007, with a rate now 69 percent higher than the national average, putting the state at a significant disadvantage in trying to keep and attract business and industry.

There are other factors driving the cost. Connecticut's deregulation plan, which required electric companies to sell their plants and buy power on the wholesale market, did not work. States that did not choose that course have lower prices.

Electrical grid congestion and lack of flexibility, particularly in southwestern Connecticut, requires the purchase of more power from less efficient, costly plants. Also adding upward price pressures are environmental regulations that require electric companies to purchase costly renewable resources and discourage coal plants.

The answer is not to ease environmental rules and boost pollution. Renewable sources, such as wind, solar and hydro can contribute, but will not be enough to meet long-term energy needs, the report concludes. The answer may be nuclear power. Over the last 10 years nuclear plants in the U.S. have operated at 90 percent of capacity and are not subject to the cost fluctuations of fossil-fuel plants.

Challenges

But any nuclear expansion plans would face major obstacles, including public opposition. A survey conducted for the academy found only 22 percent of respondents were very favorable or extremely favorable toward nuclear power, 45 percent were not favorable. Yet these opinions may come partly from ignorance, with 48 percent of respondents indicating there were no nuclear power plants in Connecticut or they weren't sure.

More significant was the decision by the Obama administration to abandon plans for a national nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Sixty-six utilities have successfully sued the U.S. Department of Energy for breaching its contract to accept nuclear waste, with a potential cost to taxpayers exceeding $11 billion. Connecticut law prohibits any new nuclear plants until there is a place to dispose of the waste. State officials must apply pressure on Congress and the president to solve this problem.

Nuclear plants are expensive to build, $4 billion to $5 billion according to the report. To make that feasible would require long-term contracts for the electricity to be generated, assuring a return on investment. Also needed would be economic incentives that recognize the importance of energy diversification and possibly public/private partnerships, concludes the report.

Not being ready to build now has one advantage. Currently, five new-generation nuclear plants are under construction in southern states. Their successful completion and operation could help establish public trust in the technology.

That does not mean Connecticut has the luxury of time. The groundwork for potential nuclear construction in a decade or so should begin now. The state that built the first nuclear-powered submarine should not accept as its fate that high electric rates will forever place it at a competitive disadvantage.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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