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Dominion officials discuss future of Millstone Nuclear Power Station

The Day Editorial Board met with leaders from Millstone Nuclear Power Station’s owner Dominion Energy on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the many issues facing the facility in Waterford.

During the hourlong meeting, Dominion officials spoke of the company’s stance on 100-year nuclear reactor license renewals, the status of Millstone’s finances, the question of what to do with nuclear waste and whether Millstone is a safety-conscious work environment, among other topics.

Power purchase agreement

Dominion State Policy Director for New England Weezie Nuara and Senior Vice President and chief nuclear officer Dan Stoddard said they’re pleased with how the 10-year contract between Dominion and utility companies in 2019 has worked for the company and ratepayers.

Gov. Ned Lamont stepped in to help secure the deal — called a power purchase agreement, or PPA — between Dominion, Eversource and United Illuminating. The contract calls on the utilities to buy half the plant’s output over the next decade. Dominion had threatened to shutter the 2,100-megawatt Millstone unless the state let it compete against higher-priced solar, wind and hydropower. Because of Millstone, Dominion is Waterford’s largest taxpayer.

“The PPA was a win-win, certainly for the ratepayers of Connecticut getting stable prices for a carbon-free resource, but also for Dominion Energy, giving us the predictability that we’ve needed to be able to make investments in the plant to carry it out through the end of this decade,” Stoddard said, adding that Dominion had to make significant investments to keep the plant operating safely and reliably.

“Without the PPA ... we would’ve been forced to retire these units early,” Stoddard said.

Nuara said the PPA price of 4.99 cents per kilowatt hour is “one of if not the lowest price for a carbon-free resource announced to date.” She highlighted a draft of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s integrated resource plan, which assesses future electric needs. This year’s is the state’s first look at ways to meet Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order of a 100% zero-carbon electric sector by 2040.

“One of the pathways analyzed was a Millstone PPA extension through 2040, and we were pleased to see the results of that analysis; would lead to savings for Connecticut ratepayers,” Nuara said.

Nuara and Stoddard floated the idea of coming to a similar agreement that would run past 2029.

“It’s not too early at all — in fact it’s very timely — that we begin looking at options to extend and expand that power purchase agreement so that Millstone can be part of the carbon-free solution for Connecticut and New England well past 2030,” Stoddard said. “With the option of subsequent license renewal on the table, taking these units beyond their current 60-year licenses out to 80 years, we can continue that past mid-century.”

Millstone is the final merchant, or unregulated, plant in Dominion’s portfolio right now after selling or shutting down other facilities.

“No business is going to continue to operate something that’s not profitable,” Stoddard said.

100-year license renewals

It’s possible that Millstone could continue operating for 100 years. 

Last week, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission convened to discuss the possibility of expanding license renewal for nuclear reactors to 11 years, potentially opening the door for Millstone's reactors to remain licensed until 2075 and 2085, respectively. The exploratory meeting was meant to begin an official discussion regarding license renewal for 100 years of plant operation. Nuclear plants originally were licensed for 40 years, which was later extended another 20 years to 60, and a subsequent renewal brought that number to 80 years.

Millstone units have already had their licenses extended once. Unit 2, originally licensed in 1975, entered its extended license period in 2015. Its license is set to expire in 2035. Unit 3, originally licensed in 1986, doesn’t enter its extended period until 2025. Its license is set to expire in 2045. Millstone’s Unit 1, which operated from 1970 to 1995, was shut down after the discovery of a leaking valve.

Stoddard said the science for understanding the aging of nuclear plant systems, structures and components is solid, and it’s understood how to make reactors safe for up to 80 years.

“Most of that same science still applies to go from 80 to 100. The focus now is, here’s the body of knowledge we have to go to 80, are there new aspects that we need to do additional research and evaluations on to take these from 80 to 100 years?” Stoddard said. He doesn’t believe the possible processes of replacing or refurbishing Millstone’s equipment would be overtly dangerous, either.

“But you have to say, is there a point where it becomes too burdensome or too expensive to do that?” he continued. “We haven’t seen that yet.”

Stoddard also addressed the question of: Wouldn’t it be better, instead of taking mid-20th-century technology and pushing it out late into the 21st century, to put online a new generation of nuclear plants with a higher threshold of safety?

“I think it’s a ‘both' and not an ‘either/or,’” Stoddard said. “These plants are fully capable of operating out to 80 years-plus safely and reliably. In addition to that, not in replacement or substitute for that, we are exploring new technologies like small modular reactors.”

Waste and the environment

The federal government had committed to take possession of nuclear waste from facilities like Millstone but later reneged, meaning Millstone stores its used fuel on site. Stoddard said ratepayers have paid a small amount for storage in the past but don’t currently. He expects that there eventually will be a federal solution to the issue and it will revolve around consolidated storage, “but until that happens, the fuel can be very safely stored on site.”

“The federal government had a legally binding requirement to take title to the used fuel, which they defaulted on. There are still options for storage out there,” Stoddard said. “There’s certainly the long-term, deep geological repository that could be out there, there’s also consolidated interim storage in a couple of locations around the U.S. That said, we have demonstrated the ability to effectively manage the nuclear fuel on site.”

In addition to spent fuel pools, Millstone has dry storage in metal canisters encased in concrete, which can be stored safely for decades, he said.

“As far as who pays for that, the industry has previously sued the Department of Energy for its failure to live up to its requirement, and there is an ongoing settlement, which is updated periodically,” Stoddard said. “The cost of loading that fuel into dry storage, the procurement cost of the metal canisters, the concrete storage modules, we are reimbursed by the DOE for those costs.”

Dominion spokesperson Ken Holt said since the company purchased Millstone in 2001, it has taken on the cost of storing spent fuel, whereas previous owner Northeast Utilities charged ratepayers.

Stoddard and the others addressed the still-unresolved issue of Millstone’s use of water from Long Island Sound, which it takes in to cool its reactors then releases, warmer, into the Sound. He said Dominion and Millstone have evaluated the cooling procedures and sent information to the state as part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit renewal application process and is awaiting renewal.

“We see other ways of complying with that rule without going to cooling towers," Stoddard said, referring to structures that can remove heat from the used water before release. "That would be unbelievably onerous to the plant, and I would not see that happening. No reasonable cost-benefit analysis would support cooling towers when there are things we can already do. We reduce intake cooling flow at these units during the spring season, I believe it’s the winter flounder spawning season. We already reduce flow to reduce our impact, so any additional benefit would be very small and at a huge cost.”

Stoddard said Millstone would shut down before installing a cooling tower.

“You’re talking about protecting the environment — do you protect the environment by forcing 2,100 megawatts of carbon-free energy off the grid? Which is in effect what that would do, so that would make no sense,” he said.

Stoddard assured the Editorial Board that Millstone is a safety-conscious work environment, meaning employees don’t fear coming forward if they see a nuclear safety issue that makes them uncomfortable. He said Dominion and Millstone emphasize engaging with employees on the ground “daily to understand what issues and concerns they may have.”

“We still have an employee concerns program, as every nuclear plant has, to provide a means for reporting concerns outside the normal management chain. There’s also a process where people can go directly to the NRC,” Stoddard said. “We also have a built-in reporting tool called our Corrective Action Program where people, if they have an equipment, procedure or process problem or concern, can write a condition report, get that into the system and get it reviewed and evaluated.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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