Ensuring safety key to extending Millstone life
When in 1970 power began pulsating from the first nuclear reactor built at Millstone station, few people, if any, would have forecast that the atomic-age technology would continue serving the region for a century. It could very well happen.
While operation of that first reactor in Waterford ceased in 1998, two reactors subsequently built at Millstone — unit 2 that began operating in 1975 and unit 3 in 1986 — continue to provide a steady flow of electricity, enough to power 2 million homes. Now the operator of the two plants, Dominion Energy, has informed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it plans to seek additional license extensions for both. If granted, it could extend operations well past midcentury.
For those interested in providing the power necessary to support economic growth, while reducing dependence on fossil fuel, this is a welcome development. Support for keeping the reactors operating must come with a significant qualification, of course. Dominion must demonstrate during the lengthy and comprehensive licensing process that repair and replacement plans are in place to ensure the continued safe operation of the plants.
Along with expansion of wind, solar and hydro renewable energy sources, nuclear generation can lead to a future far less dependent on oil and natural gas, which contribute to the atmospheric carbon buildup that is driving rapid climate change and a warming planet. A growing fleet of electric vehicles will reduce greenhouse emissions only if the electric fuel that they are tapping is not fossil-fuel dependent.
Congress should be moving more aggressively to support a new generation of nuclear reactors. It is no secret, however, that nuclear generation continues to face strong opposition, much of it from some of the same environmentalists who decry the dependence on fossil fuels. But history has proven that if done right, nuclear power can provide safe and reliable electric generation.
When Dominion acquired Millstone station from Northeast Utilities in 2000, the facility had just emerged from a dark period when safety systems were not adequately maintained, when workers feared speaking up about problems for fear of retaliation, and when regulators were lied to. In the late 1990s the NRC shut down the plants until Northeast Utilities could demonstrate it had corrected its past deficiencies and instilled a culture that encouraged safe operations.
While not problem free, prudent stewardship by Dominion over two decades has restored public confidence.
In 2005, the NRC extended by 20 years the Unit 2 and 3 licenses, to 2035 and 2045, respectively. Under the process that is now starting, the licenses could be extended to 2055 and 2065.
Granting the extensions does not ensure the plants would operate that long. Perhaps the capacity of renewable energy sources will exceed expectations, or new technological advancements will provide a clean and economic energy future that we cannot now foresee. If the Millstone reactors do not make a profit, the plants will close. Many nuclear plants have.
But it makes sense for Dominion to keep its options open. And that means preparing now, well in advance, to extend operating licenses. It is the right decision.
The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.