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Nuclear power likely needed, but maybe not wanted

Politics and economics more than science and physics may well decide the future of nuclear power in the United States.

Last week the editorial board had the chance to meet virtually with Dan Stoddard, the chief nuclear officer for Dominion Energy, owner of the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, with its two nuclear reactors. Also taking part were Dominion State Policy Director for New England Weezie Nuara and Ken Holt, company spokesman for the Millstone plant.

What we took away from the meeting is that Dominion could well operate the Millstone plant for a long time, if the economics make sense, but could just as easily shutter it if they don’t.

A purchase power agreement between Dominion and electric suppliers Eversource and United Illuminating, the result of state legislation intended to secure the plant’s continuing operation, should assure the reactors keep humming through this decade, at least. Long-term contracts with the power suppliers to buy half the plant’s electric generation provided the price stability Dominion needed to make necessary investments in the Millstone facility.

A tough debate in 2019 preceded passage of the legislation, with critics saying lawmakers were handing Dominion an unfair pricing advantage. But without the Millstone reactors, Connecticut would have no chance to meet aggressive goals to reduce fossil-fuel power production.

The Dominion officials said it is not too soon to start talks about extending a purchase agreement into the 2030s, but of course they would. In our estimation, that would require looking a bit too far into the crystal ball and predicting what energy markets may look like. By mid-decade, however, those talks probably will need to renew.

The advantage of these large nuclear reactors is that the output of power is immense — in the case of Millstone enough to supply nearly 2 million homes — and they keep operating around the clock, unlike other non-carbon energy sources solar panels and wind turbines. Can Connecticut, and the nation, aggressively move away from fossil-fuel energy production without nuclear being part of the equation, and while still feeding the demands of the technological age? It seems doubtful.

But, right now, natural gas is a less expensive electric power generation source. That is chiefly why nuclear power has been in decline. Profit margins are tight. There are 96 reactors at 58 plants, down from 112 reactors 20 years ago. Millstone and Seabrook Station in New Hampshire are the last two New England nuclear plants.

Physically, Stoddard said he sees no reason the Millstone reactors can’t keep operating for decades if parts are analyzed for degradation and replaced as needed. The largest investment was in the massive containment shells and the supportive infrastructure. Unit 2, first licensed in 1975 has an extended license that now runs to 2035. Unit 3, first licensed in 1986, is now licensed through 2045.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission now entertains license extensions up to 80 years and has started discussions on whether plants could safely operate 100 years. That sounds extreme, certainly. Whether it could be done safely and economically will be the determinative factor, but count us as highly skeptical.

A possible future for the industry could be small modular reactors, which would use passive safety features, require less human manipulation of controls, and have less pumps and pipes that can fail and cause an accident. Designs call for smaller, multiple reactors, less susceptible to catastrophic failure.

But, politically speaking, would communities accept these new plants? It seems unlikely in New England, certainly. And the nation has yet to move forward with a plan to permanently dispose of the highly radioactive waste that existing plants have produced (See Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere’s column today on that topic).

So, while strong arguments can be made that nuclear power should play a role in a future that is less dependent on fossil fuels, and more climate friendly, the best that can be said about whether it will remain part of the nation’s long-term energy portfolio is — maybe.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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