Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, Seabrook, NH

Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, Seabrook, NH (Flickr: Jim Richmond)

New England’s nuclear power plants appear to be on their way out, with one of the region’s three nuclear power plants permanently closed and one slated to shut down within the next three years.

The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant shuttered in 2014. The next year, the owners of Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts announced the facility would close by 2019.

The third, New Hampshire’s Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, is licensed to run until 2030 but opponents are seeking to block extension of its operating license beyond that date.

Efforts are underway across New England to ramp up reliance on solar and wind energy. To jump start the transition, this summer, Massachusetts passed legislation mandating long-term contracts for offshore wind projects and hydroelectric power from Canada.

But even with these efforts, most of the lost electricity production from nuclear will be replaced by natural gas power plants. For a region hoping to aggressively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and to be a world leader on the issue of climate change, that’s a problem.

“It’s necessary to start thinking about [the plant closures] because it’s going to be almost impossible, if not outright impossible, to completely replace the use of fossil fuels with wind and solar,” said Robert Stone, an environmental filmmaker whose 2013 documentary, Pandora’s Promise, focused on the nuclear energy debate. “It’s just not happening, it’s hard to imagine it ever happening. And certainly not within the time frame that climate scientists tell us we have left to solve this problem, which is really a few decades.”

Yet other environmentalists argue that there is no avoiding the plant closures, given their safety concerns and higher costs relative to cheap natural gas plants.

“We have had Vermont Yankee close in the last two years, largely as a result of safety concerns and leaks from their facility that were resulting in radioactive materials ending up in the Connecticut River,” said Greg Cunningham, the director of clean energy and climate change for the Conservation Law Foundation. “We have the Pilgrim unit which is located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, similarly on a schedule to close down as late as 2019 or as early as 2017… It’s very difficult for these nuclear facilities to survive in a low energy market price context.”

Unexpected consequences

In the campaign to close the Vermont Yankee plant in 2014, opponents raised concerns about the disposal of nuclear waste, radiation exposure, discharge into the Connecticut River, and the risk of equipment failure. The plant’s out-of-state owners were deemed untrustworthy, and federal and state regulatory processes were perceived as biased in favor of the owners.

Yet many benefits to the Vermont Yankee plant to the community were overlooked, concludes a recent report produced by local planning and economic development commissions.

Tim Murphy, executive director of the Southwest Region Planning Commission in New Hampshire and one of the authors of the report, said that local planning commissions were expecting certain consequences, including the loss of 600 workers, and a decrease in economic activity when some of the highest-paid members of the community lost their jobs or moved away. Yet the report detailed some of the more unexpected impacts of the closure.

“Things like civic engagement and social capital – the folks who are in the workforce who choose to get involved in their community and serve on local governing boards, to volunteer as a baseball coach…those were difficult things to have to recover after the fact,” Murphy said.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, following the plant’s closure, Vermont lost more than half of its electricity generating capacity, increasing its reliance on out-of-state providers. Today, only about 40 percent of electricity is produced within the state, most coming from hydroelectric, wind, biomass and solar sources. But for the other 60 percent that comes from out of state, most is generated by natural gas plants.

A dangerous over-reliance on natural gas

For New England, a reduction in nuclear capacity means that for the near future carbon-neutral sources in the local power grid will be depleted, forcing greater reliance on natural gas generation.

Many who support closing down nuclear plants say that carbon-neutral energy can eventually be achieved by way of a 100 percent reliance on renewables like solar and wind, insisting that nuclear stations are too dangerous and old to continue to be used.

“The nuclear regulatory commission monitors these plants and they are highly regulated and they are inspected on a regular basis and when safety risks appear or occur they have to be addressed and there’s costs associated with addressing those risks,” said Cunningham of The Conservation Law Foundation. “So at some point the owner of the plant has to make a decision.”

Eventually, he said, just like with an old automobile, it costs too much to maintain the upkeep of an old station, and instead of sinking money into building new reactors, most states will choose to switch to renewables or natural gas.

Yet current estimates of New England’s electricity future do not offer an optimistic outlook for renewables. By 2024, according to ISO New England, the good news is that reliance on coal and oil for electricity production is likely to continue to drop. But reliance on nuclear energy will also dip, falling from 13 percent to 11 percent of electricity production (figure below).

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New England’s Electricity Generating Capacity by Energy Sources, 2000-2024 (Source: ISO New England)

Under current projects and absent major new policy actions, hydroelectric and renewables are not expected to fill the gap, providing only 9 percent and 5 percent of New England’s electricity by 2024. Instead, natural gas generation is expected to spike from 44 percent to 57 percent of electricity production.

Defining a future for nuclear energy

“The reason [nuclear power plants] are shutting down in the United States is almost entirely economic,” says Kerry Emanuel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist who thinks we should think twice about shutting down nuclear plants.

“The two things that are killing nuclear at the moment are the low price of natural gas and fairly high subsidies for wind and solar. The reason that I’m opposed to [shutting down nuclear plants] is that nuclear is a very important source of carbon-free energy,” says Emanuel. “If we look at the last two years across the United States, we’ve lost more ground in clean energy by shutting down nuclear power plants than we have gained by adding solar.”

Emanuel and other pro-nuclear activists advocate for several solutions to keep nuclear plants running so that carbon-neutral sources of energy can replace coal and natural gas.  To make nuclear plants more cost competitive, they propose extending to nuclear energy the same types of “zero carbon” subsidies that renewable energy sources like solar and wind receive. Emanuel also wants to go one step beyond keeping existing plants open: he thinks we need to invest in more advanced nuclear energy technologies.

“There are a lot of drawbacks to 1960s nuclear technology. In fact, a lot of nuclear engineers in the 1950s didn’t want to build light water reactors,” he said. “We should have and should be developing a new generation of fission reactors that are much better in many respects than the existing white water reactors. So I think we ought to be putting resources in the development of next-gen fission.”