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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Millstone power station looks to the (nuclear) future

    Operators of the control room at the Millstone 2 power station monitor the nuclear unit’s performance on March 22, 2024. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Michael O’Connor, site leader at Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, stands outside the Millstone 3 unit on Friday, March 22, 2024, as piping and transmission lines can be seen in the background. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    The dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel rods can be seen at Millstone Nuclear Power Station on March 22, 2024. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Michael O’Connor, site leader at Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, is dwarfed by components inside the Millstone 3 unit on Friday, March 22, 2024. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Michael O’Connor, site leader at Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, explains how nuclear power generation works on Friday, March 22, 2024, before leading a tour of the plant. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Michael O’Connor, site leader at Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, stands March 22, 2024, in front of a simulator that allows operators in the Millstone 2 control room to test out different scenarios for dealing with potential plant issues. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    An aerial view of Millstone Power Station in Waterford on Thursday, November 16, 2023. (Peter Huoppi/The Day)
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    Waterford -- Michael O’Connor is looking ahead to a Millstone nuclear power station 20 years from now that could look much different than it does today.

    But it would still be based on nuclear power.

    “I don’t see a downside to nuclear,” he said.

    O’Connor, Dominion Energy vice president and site leader at Millstone, said during a March 22 tour of the Millstone Point operation that he could foresee a time when the more than 500-acre property might include a group of smaller, modular nuclear reactors (also known as SMRs) where the dormant Millstone 1 now stands, though the new technology, potentially safer and more efficient, is still years away from being deployable in Waterford.

    He also is looking forward to a time when the spent nuclear fuel rods now stored on site could be moved to a still-undetermined offsite location, opening up space for more development of the property. And Dominion also has hopes that the town will approve a multimillion-dollar data center and switchyard ― a place where voltage is converted into electricity ― near where Millstone’s education buildings now stand.

    “The number one priority is the preservation of existing nuclear here,” O’Connor said in a conference room near the plant’s executive offices. “So units 2 and 3 are our focus.”

    But O’Connor said he knows Millstone may very well be called on to up its energy production in the future, as the power grid gears up for increasing demands from electric vehicles, new apartment complexes and perhaps a rebirth of the Crystal Mall, among other potential new demand generators.

    O’Connor said Millstone is ready and willing to step into the breach, though it will of course have to get approvals from federal regulators, the state and, at times, local governments to be able to move forward in any new direction.

    “There's a lot of things that have to work together to put more nuclear power here,” he said. “And I appreciate the legislature thinking about it.”

    O’Connor is referring to a legislative working group that will be looking into the benefits and risks of putting relatively small, modular nuclear reactors on site at Millstone. According to O’Connor, about a dozen of these new-generation reactors put together would add up to the power-generating capacity of Millstone 2.

    O’Connor, who was named to the working group looking into the future of nuclear energy in Connecticut, said the panel has not yet met. But when it does, he expects legislators to chew over the possibility of constructing another large nuclear power plant like Millstone 3 as well as the smaller modular units that some have contemplated.

    “We have a desire for clean energy in Connecticut, and the state legislature lifted the moratorium on new nuclear construction two years ago, but only at existing nuclear sites. That's here, right?” he said.

    Dominion Energy, he added, currently operates nuclear plants all over the East Coast, so it would be a natural for the local plant to lead the way in this new technology.

    “We're absolutely the right operator to manage a plant like that,” he said. “My preference is to use smaller versions of what we have here, because we're familiar with the technology.”

    But questions remain, such as where would be the best site, which modular plant design makes the most sense and, perhaps most important, how is it going to be financed. These are all questions O’Connor hopes can be decided by the working group.

    State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, who is Senate chairman of the Energy & Technology Committee, said Thursday in a phone interview that he hopes to preserve the nuclear capacity of Millstone while looking toward a new power purchase agreement that would involve other nearby states.

    “Now’s the time for the governor to be working with them,” Needleman said, referring to Millstone.

    Needleman added that he doubts the possibility that Millstone might one day house yet another large nuclear plant like Units 2 or 3. He pointed to huge overruns at a new nuclear plant in Georgia, and O’Connor noted another plant in South Carolina was abandoned entirely over costs.

    And while Needleman didn’t discount the idea of smaller nuclear units, he said ”I don’t believe SMRs are there yet.“

    Meanwhile, O’Connor said, Millstone remains committed to its two large nuclear units on site, Millstone 2 and 3, which are currently licensed through 2035 and 2045 respectively. Dominion late last year informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it would be applying to extend the licenses of both plants for an additional 20 years, good news for the Town of Waterford, which depends on Millstone for about a third of its tax revenue.

    “There's always a back and forth when you apply for something,” O’Connor said of the planned NRC filing. “They'll request additional information and we'll get them all they need to make a decision.”

    O’Connor is hopeful, too, about a possible long-term solution to the issue of finding a permanent home for the plant’s spent fuel rods. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has set up a caucus in Congress looking into the issue, which has stymied politicians for decades, and the local congressman on Wednesday set up a meeting between O’Connor and the U.S. ambassador to Finland to discuss the Finnish solution of storing fuel rods underground in spaces similar to mine shafts.

    “It’s not dangerous here,” O’Connor said, gesturing to a hulk of above-ground concrete casks lined with lead that currently stand sentinel on one side of the power plant property. “But it does take up space.”

    O’Connor said there will be no residual radiation left on site after the fuel rods leave Millstone.

    “The radiation goes with the source of the radiation,” he said.

    O’Connor said one of the main concerns at the Millstone plants is replacing components as they age. Two years ago, Unit 3 shut down for two months as Millstone spent $120 million to replace the main electric generator so it could operate for another 50 years. O’Connor said a similar project at Millstone 2 is projected within three years at Unit 2, costing another $100 million.

    Dominion will also be looking forward to renegotiating a power-purchasing agreement with the state that lapses in 2029, currently guaranteeing a buyer for about half of Millstone’s energy output. He expects the new agreement will call for a purchase price of more than the current $49.99 a megawatt hour to help compensate for higher industry wages and the fact that wind power prices are about double the cost for nuclear (though natural gas prices remain suppressed lately).

    “Without Millstone in the mix, what would the cost of electricity be?” he asked.

    The implication: a lot more expensive.

    A pattern of closings

    O’Connor, a former Navy man, started his civilian nuclear career at the Connecticut Yankee plant in East Haddam, which has since closed. Other nuclear plants in the region that have shuttered over the years include Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt., Yankee Pilgrim in Plymouth, Mass., and Indian Point near New York City.

    The Millstone 1 plant shut down in the 1990s, but has not yet been decommissioned, and there are no immediate plans for the building to be disassembled. During a walk-through of Millstone 1, the former control room looked like a ghost town, with all its electronic components re-purposed to be used at other sites or at educational classrooms where operators learn the ropes of monitoring the nuclear generators.

    Near the control room for Millstone 2, O’Connor showed off a simulator where plant operators can run through various scenarios to see what the results would be during a specific procedure.

    “It just mimics everything that's on the control board, and people can use it to validate procedures,” he said. “It's been a big boost to people's proficiency when you're touching components. Nothing has to be done fast here but it's got to be done right.”

    In the control room, some employees concentrate on the plant side of the operation where the turbine controls and electrical controls are, while others are looking at the reactor operator side to ensure safety.

    “They're both interchangeable. Anybody can work on either side, but they kind of maintain that watch station perspective,” O’Connor said.

    He called plant equipment operators “the eyes and ears for the control room” as they are tasked with doing rounds to ensure everything's working right and nothing is leaking.

    “They also tag equipment out of service for maintenance activities that we do or any surveillance testing,” he said. “We need all our equipment to get the right maintenance at the right time so I can go 18 months without taking a unit offline. It supports the grid, it also supports the quality of life for the people that work here.”

    O’Connor said Millstone currently employs about 1,000 people, including health science engineers, health physics and chemistry experts, engineers, electricians, maintenance personnel, instrumentation people and security. But the largest department on site is training, as learning is a constant part of the job and technology is always evolving.

    “We need engineers to work in nuclear, and that includes mechanical, electrical and civil,” he said.

    Millstone has only two shifts, as most employees work 12-hour days, with seven days on followed by seven days off. During a five-week rotation, workers spend four days in a training environment learning or re-enforcing new skills.

    O’Connor said Millstone gets a significant number of its new hires directly out of a nuclear power training program at Three Rivers Community College.

    “We got probably close to 450 employees here that have been through that program,” O’Connor said. “We hire directly out of that program. We provide 16 scholarships every year.”

    Touring the inside area where nuclear energy is being created, the gargantuan size of the operation comes into full focus. But while visitors are encouraged to wear hardhats, safety glasses and ear protection, the noise inside is not overwhelming, and it’s warm but not stifling.

    “These plants were both built in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and components wear out over time, just from use and then we need to renew those,” O’Connor said. “We've done several large pump projects here, several large heat exchanger projects, and we always have a section of piping that needs to be replaced over time because we monitor pipe wall thicknesses, and you know they wear out over time.”

    O’Connor said the 1.5 million-square-foot data center currently being proposed by a company called NE Edge would result in rental income as well as a guaranteed buyer of electricity from the Millstone plant. If approved, it is expected to generate $231 million in payments to the town over a 30-year period.

    Data centers have been given tax incentives by the state government as an economic booster in this age of big data and artificial intelligence. But Sen. Needleman said the intent was that data centers would be put in towns where municipal utilities exist, and that they would be metered on the grid rather than being powered directly through a switchyard, as Millstone intends.

    He has proposed a bill that would offer tax breaks only if it could be determined that a data center would not impact the reliability of the electric grid.

    “Losing 300 megawatts of power for Millstone is concerning to me,“ Needleman said. He added that he wants to look into enhancing the nuclear capabilities of Millstone, ”but not at any price.“

    O’Connor said the data center at Millstone makes sense since it put a large user of electricity next to a large generator. “They would have a reliability factor that no other data center in the country has, from two nuclear plants,” he added.

    O’Connor acknowledged that some people are worried about the noise some of these data centers emit, but said he has visited Dominion Energy partners in Virginia that were pretty quiet.

    “When you hear a complaint about the data center, it's about a continuous hum that some have put out from the cooling systems they use, whether it's fans or coolers or airflow,” he said. “That's not the only way you can cool a data center.”

    But O’Connor agreed there are still questions, and noise issues will have to be addressed.

    “I didn't know anything about noise,” O’Connor said. “And when people brought it up, we looked into it. When I was in Virginia, I took the opportunity to go scope it out for myself, put eyes on, and we made it clear to the developers that they could build a data center here, but it can't make any noise. They're committed to that.”

    O’Connor takes a similarly tactful approach to the question of advanced nuclear options, noting that he will have to work with both Waterford and East Lyme government officials along with the state and NRC before any viable plans can be offered.

    He pointed out that 12 of these smaller units would account for about 924 megawatts of electricity, similar to the output of Millstone 2. The best spot to place the units would be where Millstone 1 now stands, he added, but how many would be able to fit in that space has not yet been determined.

    “While we like to talk about advanced nuclear in this country, nobody's built one yet,” he said. “Well, I think that whole landscape is going to change in in the next eight to 10 years. ... I think we should work to get there and it will happen.”

    O’Connor estimated it would take five to seven years to prep the Millstone 1 site, so the completion of any new project would be 10 to 15 years away, he estimated.

    “Dominion Energy's not going to be a stranger to the next generation of nuclear,” he added.

    l.howard@theday.com

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