We must preserve nuclear power plants

Offshore wind, hydro are fine, but need to safeguard nukes

The following is a letter sent to Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg by a group of scientists, environmentalists, and academics.

As scientists, environmentalists and concerned citizens, we urge you to include nuclear power among the sources of clean energy eligible for support in Massachusetts law, particularly in the pending legislative measures H4377 and S2372. Preserving nuclear power in Massachusetts and New England is crucial to progress on decarbonization in the region, and can be done at a much lower cost than can procurements of other renewable sources.

We are moved by an emerging scientific consensus that nuclear power must play a central role in the battle against climate change. State governments are joining that consensus, with major initiatives to support nuclear plants being enacted or pending in New York, Connecticut, Illinois, and Ohio. The importance of nuclear power is evident in Massachusetts, where the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth enerates 57 percent of the state’s low-carbon electricity, and in New England at large, where nuclear plants produce 62 percent of the region’s clean generation.

Unfortunately, temporarily low natural-gas prices and overcapacity from new renewables procurements are depressing electricity markets and threatening the financial viability of nuclear plants in New England.

Pilgrim will close by 2019 without financial relief. Millstone in Connecticut and Seabrook in New Hampshire are also at risk.

If these plants close, thousands of jobs will be lost in Massachusetts and the region, state and local governments will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, and nearby communities will be economically devastated. Moreover, state and regional clean-energy initiatives will be crippled.

Premature retirement of these plants will wipe out 66 percent more low-carbon energy than is produced by New England’s entire renewables and hydro sectors combined.

This clean power would be replaced almost entirely by natural gas-fired generation. When the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closed, fossil-fueled generation rose in New England by almost exactly the amount of lost nuclear output, and regional greenhouse emissions, after many years of decline, rose by 5 percent.

Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.

Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.

The closure of Pilgrim would likewise result in additional carbon dioxide emissions of at least 2 million metric tons per year, and loss of all the region’s reactors would boost emissions by at least 13 million tons per year. It would take decades for growth in renewable power to compensate for this loss of clean energy.

Meanwhile, nuclear closures would exacerbate Massachusetts’ and New England’s dependence on insecure natural gas supplies, which already generate half the region’s electricity. In the recent polar vortex event and other episodes, gas pipeline bottlenecks and heavy demand brought the New England grid close to collapse and caused rates to soar. The Independent System Operator of New England (ISONE) forecasts another 8,000 megawatts of new gas capacity coming on line, nearly two thirds of all new capacity. Without nuclear plants to backstop the grid, gas supply shortages and price spikes will worsen.

Legislative action is needed to make the state and regional power supply cleaner and more reliable. The provisions in H4377 and S2372 help by procuring new renewable power on long-term, subsidized contracts. But unless they are amended to support nuclear power as well, they could make the situation worse.

The proposals do nothing to prevent Pilgrim from closing. They do mandate procurement of off-shore wind power, but that unreliable power will need to be backed up by new gas capacity, which means more carbon emissions and gas-supply insecurity. The bills also call for a separate procurement of renewables firmed by hydroelectric power, presumably from Quebec. This is usually a cheap and reasonably reliable source of power, but ISONE warns that Quebec hydro may be stretched thin during winter supply crises.

The procurement is also a large one, of 14-20 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year, or up to 40 percent of Massachusetts’ annual consumption. That’s good, but that large amount of subsidized electricity will further depress New England’s already low wholesale prices, according to ISONE, and may drive nuclear plants out of business. If that happens, New England will lose 32 million megawatt-hours of low-carbon nuclear electricity, and be left with much less clean energy than it has now. This possibility is so serious that, unless safeguards to protect nuclear plants are added, we cannot support H4377 or S2372 as they now stand.

Fortunately, fixes for these problems are easy and cheap. As a first step, the Massachusetts legislature could enact a provision to negotiate a 15 to 20-year long-term contract with the Pilgrim plant, similar to contracts for renewables developments.

Another approach is to grant Pilgrim a credit for its zero-emissions power. This could be modeled on New York’s innovative Zero Emissions Credit, which provides support for financially ailing nuclear plants at a level tied to the social cost of carbon and to wholesale prices, along with caps that protect rate-payers against excessive costs.

Pilgrim’s closure has already been announced, but a long-term contract proposal or a Zero Emissions Credit could reverse that decision. New York’s credit has already prompted Exelon to open talks about buying the Fitzpatrick nuclear plant, whose closure had already been announced by Entergy.

Either measure could keep Pilgrim’s yearly 5.3 million megawatt-hours of zero-emissions electricity on line and increase the state’s share of clean power by 10 percentage points. That would be dramatically cheaper than renewables procurements. The proposed offshore wind procurement will cost in the neighborhood of 18.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, to judge by the contract price for the state’s now-suspended Cape Wind project.

Pilgrim’s zero-emissions power, by contrast, could be procured at 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, just one third the cost of offshore wind procurements. By preserving 600 jobs and millions in tax revenue, the credit would likely have substantial net economic benefits.

Other feasible initiatives could be taken to support New England’s nuclear power more generally. Massachusetts could work with other states on the ISONE grid to set up a region-wide Zero Emissions Credit for nuclear plants. Alternatively, Massachusetts could establish an additional clean-energy portfolio standard for which both regional renewables and nuclear are eligible. A target of 11 million megawatt-hours would account for Massachusetts’ share of nuclear on the ISONE grid, (exclusive of Pilgrim’s output). That would raise Massachusetts’ low-carbon share of electricity consumption to about two-thirds, and at a lower cost than all-renewables procurements.

The modest incentives needed to keep nuclear plants running will benefit everyone. Local communities will keep thousands of family-wage jobs. New England’s economy will keep a cheap, reliable supply of power. The region’s nuclear plants have many decades of useful service left, during which they could prevent the emissions of hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse emissions—thus benefitting the climate and our grandchildren.

Meet the Author
We ask you not to pass H4377 or S2372 in their current forms, but to amend them to recognize the ongoing importance of nuclear power. New England needs more low-carbon capacity, but it also needs to safeguard the clean capacity it has to avoid going backwards on greenhouse targets. By recognizing the value of nuclear plants, treating them fairly and supporting them efficiently, Massachusetts can make decisive progress on decarbonizing its power supply and become a global leader in clean-energy policy.

A long list of scientists, environmentalists, and academic signed the letter, including Kerry Emanuel, an MIT professor of atmospheric science; James Hansen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University; David Lea, professor of earth science at the University of California; Michelle Marvier, professor of environmental studies and sciences at Santa Clara University; Andrew Klein, president of the American Nuclear Society; Joe Lassiter, professor at the Harvard Business School; and author Richard Rhodes.