Shift in thinking on nuclear power

Sweden, Mass. see advantages; Germany moving in opposite direction  

ATTITUDES TOWARD nuclear power are changing in Europe and here in Massachusetts.

The Swedish parliament voted recently to change the country’s energy goal from 100 percent renewable to 100 percent fossil free, a shift that will allow nuclear power to count toward the target and open the door to efforts to bolster the nation’s existing nuclear plants and possibly add new ones.

“This creates the conditions for nuclear power,” Swedish Finance Minister Elisabeth Svantesson said in June. “We need more electricity production, we need clean electricity, and we need a stable energy system.”

With the war in Ukraine highlighting reliance on Russian fossil fuels, nuclear power has found more acceptance and even favor in a number of countries struggling to decarbonize, including the United Kingdom, France, and Finland.

The same is true in Massachusetts. The House and Senate leaders of the Legislature’s energy committee won’t even hold hearings in the same room these days, but they agree that preserving the region’s remaining nuclear power plants is smart policy.

“I definitely see a shift in thinking about nuclear,” said Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, the House chair of the committee and the sponsor of legislation that would authorize Massachusetts to procure energy from the Millstone nuclear power plants in Connecticut or the Seabrook units in New Hampshire.

Roy said such procurements would allow Massachusetts to claim the fossil-free power as its own in its accounting for decarbonization goals and keep the nuclear plants on solid financial footing going forward. Connecticut utilities struck a 10-year deal with Millstone in 2019.

“Attitudes toward nuclear have shifted in Massachusetts already,” said Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee. “I think Sweden is on to something.”

Unlike countries in Europe, many of which are considering building new nuclear reactors, Roy said he doesn’t see Massachusetts embracing the construction of a new plant.

“They do serve a useful purpose,” Roy said of the existing plants. “But I don’t foresee anyone constructing a new nuclear facility.”

Roy led a legislative delegation to visit the Millstone and Seabrook plants last year, and came away impressed with their security and safety measures, and their relatively small amount of nuclear waste, which can remain dangerous for thousands of years.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Vogtle 3, the first new nuclear power facility to come online in the United States in decades, began generating power in May in Waynesboro, Georgia. Vogtle 4 is scheduled to come online in 2024. The project, seven years late and $17 billion over budget, epitomizes the challenge of nuclear power.

Many countries in Europe are moving away from nuclear power even as the need for fossil-free energy is high. Germany shut down its remaining nuclear plants in April, a move that is forcing it to burn more coal to produce electricity.

German policy has been spurred along by nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, and most recently Fukushima in Japan in 2011. German officials say nuclear power is neither green nor sustainable, and continuing to use it just delays efforts to embrace true renewable forms of energy.