Reconsider nuclear power
First it was Vermont Yankee. Will the next nuclear plants to go be Pilgrim, Seabrook and Millstone?
New England has a gas pipeline shortage, it can't rely much longer on oil or coal for electricity production, the amount of solar and wind power is very small, and there's not much additional hydropower out there. The loss of 4,629 megawatts of nuclear power would send New England electricity prices skyrocketing, cause a sharp increase in air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, and do untold damage to the region's economy and energy security.
So you say that couldn't happen. Why not? Vermont Yankee, a safe and reliable nuclear plant that had its operating license renewed in 2011 and would have provided Vermont with its cheapest power for the next 20 years, is being shut down prematurely. Never mind that this is a nuclear plant that has kept electricity prices lower than they otherwise would be without it and avoids 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.
The economic impact of Vermont Yankee's impending loss transcends state lines. Ratepayers in western Massachusetts and across the border in New Hampshire have been told to expect sharp increases in electricity prices. Utility officials in both states blamed the increases on Vermont Yankee's shutdown. And if New England's other nuclear plants are shuttered, Vermonters are likely to see a jump in their own electricity bills that would come on top of the still-to-be determined cost of Vermont Yankee's loss.
Yet it is still possible to change course and reduce the economic and environmental risks of not having enough nuclear-generated electricity. To give nuclear power its best chance, state public utility commissions and independent operators should move beyond short-term efforts to make maximum use of natural gas and take a few immediate, practical actions that could have a tangible effect on ensuring that the percentage of nuclear power increases in the years ahead.
The opportunity to make progress arises from the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring each state to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030. Massachusetts must reduce its emissions by 37.7 percent, Connecticut by 29.4 percent, and New Hampshire by 46.3 percent. Many advocates of solar and wind power believe those sources can be scaled up to meet the rising demand for low-carbon energy. But utility experts say that today's renewables cannot get us even halfway there.
What's important to recognize is that not one of the New England states includes nuclear power in its renewable electricity standard. Mandating the production and use of solar and wind power but not nuclear power, which delivers a huge amount of zero-carbon electricity on demand 24/7, is absurd. In addition, with the use of nuclear fuel reprocessing, nuclear power is renewable and could supply 50 percent of the country's needed power for the next 1,000 years.
Instead of abolishing the renewable electricity standard, what if we restructured it? The heart of the problem is that it doesn't take into account nuclear's value in avoiding carbon emissions. Nor does it recognize nuclear's crucial role in maintaining a diverse mix of energy sources, which is important if the price of natural gas should rise unexpectedly.
I believe we will miss Vermont Yankee once it is finally shuttered. We will be even worse off if other nuclear plants are forced to close, without investing in new reactors to replace them.
If New England decides to forego nuclear power as a major source of emission-free energy, it should do so with the understanding that nuclear-generated electricity will be replaced by power from natural gas that contributes significantly to ozone smog and climate change, and there is no question it will cost more.
Bob Leach is a retired radiation protection manager and a certified senior reactor operator. He lives in Brattleboro.
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