On May 31, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts was powered down for the last time
By Ed Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.
On May 31, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts was powered down for the last time, beginning the long process of decommissioning the 47-year-old plant.
Since 1972, the plant has looked out over Cape Cod Bay, producing 680 megawatts of power for hundreds of thousands of homes. Pilgrim was the only nuclear power plant operating in Massachusetts, producing about 15 percent of the electricity generated in the state. But for many people in the community, it’s an end that’s been a long time coming.
Over the years, Pilgrim has weathered emergency shutdowns, security concerns and several safety issues. It’s also fair to say that at times the plant was at odds with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Opposition to Pilgrim’s license extension came mainly from a community group that filed numerous legal and procedural challenges. The state attorney general also raised questions about the spent nuclear fuel that is stored at the site, among other issues.
In 2015, the plant owners announced that it would close by June 2019, citing “market conditions and increased costs,” which would have included tens of millions of dollars for necessary safety upgrades.
The plant is currently owned by Entergy Corporation, which had planned to follow a protocol that allows for 60 years to complete the decommissioning process. The ultimate goal is to return the site to its former condition.
“It’s a fairly complex process because first you have to shut down the plant and you have to put it in a stable condition,” explained Joseph Lynch, the senior manager of government relations for Entergy. Lynch, who has overseen the decommissioning of five other plants, is confident this entire process can be done safely. “I can assure you based on the regulations, and the mindset and the training of the people who are going to be involved, whether operating or decommissioning the plant, safety will always be our number one priority,” he said.
Going through the decommissioning process, one of the big challenges is securing radioactive fuel that is stored on the site. There will be 61 casks of spent fuel kept on the grounds of the plant.
Things are already starting to change around the facility. During June, the plant’s staff of 600 workers will be cut in half. Another reduction is expected early next year, leaving about 150 workers at the facility. Soon, the buildings on the site will start to be brought down and removed.
But there is a wrinkle in the plan. Now the facility might be sold to a company called Holtec, which claims that it can expedite the timetable and complete the cleanup in eight years.
Residents in the community were concerned that if the facility were sold, the current safety standards for decommissioning would be preeminent and remain the same for the new owners. For this reason, the state attorney general has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a hearing on the proposed sale.
Replacing Generation Capacity
The Northeast Power Coordinating Council (NPCC) recently released a forecast for the region’s power needs, stating that Connecticut and New England should have an adequate power supply for this summer. It said the retirement of the Plymouth facility should not impact the region’s power supply, because it can be offset by other energy sources.
Another reason for the adequate supply, according to NPCC, is demand for electricity during peak periods continues to decline. The forecast for overall demand for electricity in New England has decreased by about 600 megawatts from last year’s forecast, to 103,548 megawatts.
The loss of Pilgrim’s 680-megawatt generation capacity is being offset by a 1,185-megawatt increase in new power-producing assets in New England. Among them is the new natural gas-fired power plant that PSEG is building on the old Bridgeport Harbor generation station site.
Does MA Need Nuclear?
While longtime foes of the Pilgrim plant may be celebrating its demise, not everyone is happy about the state’s lack of nuclear power generation. Prior to Pilgrim’s closure, nuclear power made up about 15 percent of the energy produced in the state. By comparison, that’s twice the amount of energy that solar produces.
Some climate activists say the state’s decision to abandon nuclear energy means we’re taking a step backward and wiping out the gains we’ve made in clean power. They also point out that when Vermont pushed its Yankee nuclear reactor into early retirement five years ago, it caused a five percent increase in carbon production across New England’s energy sector.
Nuclear advocates say that Massachusetts should be looking at building new nuclear power plants for a predictable zero-emissions stream of power to back up wind and solar. However, the simple economics don’t work in favor of building new plants. Energy produced from a combination of renewables and natural gas is less expensive than energy produced from nuclear power plants. The cheaper power sources make building expensive new nuclear plants less attractive.