Nuclear

Grassroots Growing?

Issue 1 and Volume 120.

By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor

It’s getting harder and harder to be an optimist when it comes to the prospects for nuclear power in the United States. Despite the pending startup of Watts Bar Unit 2, and the construction progress at Vogtle and Summer, the economic pressures on nuclear power plants – particularly smaller units competing in wholesale markets – are acute.

Entergy’s double-barreled death blows in late 2016 to the Pilgrim Station in Massachusetts and the FitzPatrick Station in upstate New York were the latest announcements to shake the nuclear power industry. While not entirely unexpected, the pain and disappointment that these decisions provoked are pronounced, especially with respect to FitzPatrick, which was a well-run unit by most measures.

From afar, it’s easy to forget that there are real people affected by these decisions – hundreds of individuals who will be forced to find other work, uproot their families, and reduce or stop investing in their communities. But there may be a silver lining here…an awakening in other nuclear plant communities around the United States to the real possibility that their tax base may be at risk.

There are nascent signs that grassroots efforts to sustain nuclear power are gaining momentum. For example, the communities surrounding the FitzPatrick plant in northern New York used both political and media channels to try to save the facility. They got state politicians from the district to publicly lobby on behalf of the plant, they appealed to the governor to intervene, they coordinated union support, and they organized public rallies (complete with participants hoisting signs saying “Nuclear: Carbon Free Emissions”).

[Let’s set aside for the moment the blatant hypocrisy evinced by New York Governor Cuomo in simultaneously castigating Entergy for exercising its capitalistic right to decide whether to invest in an underperforming asset while demanding that Entergy shut down the profitable Indian Point nuclear plant.]

And while it might be too little too late, business leaders from Oswego County, N.Y. even created a touching video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9fawOa93wU) extolling the importance of the FitzPatrick plant to their community. In one segment, a restaurant owner pleads, “I would tell Governor Cuomo if he were here right now to seriously think about the impact that closing this plant and losing those jobs would have on the county with the highest unemployment rate in the state.”

 

The ramifications of the FitzPatrick closure are spreading to other nuclear plant communities. NextEra Energy Resources owns the Seabrook nuclear station in coastal New Hampshire. Like FitzPatrick, this is a single-unit site that bids its power into wholesale power markets. While younger and larger than FitzPatrick, Seabrook also could be at risk as it considers life extension, particularly in light of the rancorous debate that surrounded its construction and startup back in the late 1980s. Public and political opposition delayed construction for many years, and ultimately led to the cancellation of a second planned unit.

Seabrook’s initial license does not expire until 2030, but NextEra applied for a 20-year extension in 2010. Opposition has emerged – including a political effort to prevent consideration of license extension until the plant is within 10 years of initial license expiration – but so has support.

As reported in the Eagle-Tribune in mid-November, Seabrook town officials have pledged “unconditional support” for the license extension, and have sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying that the plant has “become, quite simply, an irreplaceable regional asset.” The letter also stated: “It’s almost unimaginable to think of where we would be today without the plant…The continued improvements and economic expansion of our town is due in large part to Seabrook Station.” The town selectmen even voted to include a photo of the facility on the cover of its 2016 Town Report.

One letter on behalf of one plant does not guarantee success across the U.S nuclear fleet. But the hundreds of jobs, and the tens of millions of dollars in property taxes generated by nuclear plants, have a way of making politicians listen – and perhaps entertain legislative actions recognizing the unique contributions nuclear power makes with respect to reliability and zero carbon emissions. Not a “free pass” for continued operation, but an even-handed review that weighs business viability, economic impact, value to the power grid, and environmental benefits.

I find it somewhat ironic that Entergy’s decision to close FitzPatrick came within a few days of Dominion’s announcement to pursue a second license renewal at its Surry plant, potentially enabling the plant to operate through 80 years of life. While seemingly contradictory, both can be sound business decisions, reflecting the condition of the particular plants within their particular markets.

In the end, it truly is a business decision. The ongoing question is whether grassroots efforts can alter the calculus a bit, and help others recognize that penalizing a healthy asset for operating in an unhealthy market is not in anyone’s best interests.