Pilgrim's closure revives nuclear energy debate

File photoU.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas 

BOSTON — The pending closure of Pilgrim power plant has rekindled the debate over nuclear energy, as state and federal officials square off with environmental groups over how to meet the state's long-term energy needs.

Entergy Corp., which operates the 43-year-old plant in Plymouth, said the problem-plagued facility is no longer financially viable amid falling revenues, increased costs and a difficult energy market.

The facility, Massachusetts' only nuclear plant, produces about 5 percent of the state's energy.

News that it will close by 2019 has state officials scrambling to fill an expected gap in energy production while meeting ambitious goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are prodding federal regulators to shutter the plant even before 2019. Groups such as Environment Massachusetts view the plant's pending closure as an opportunity to expand the use of solar and wind power in the state. They rallied at the Statehouse last week, urging state officials to act.

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat who represents Essex County and part of Middlesex, said the state shouldn't abandon nuclear energy. Energy companies, he said, should be investing in upgrades to their nuclear plants.

Moulton said in an interview he finds it "ironic" that environmental groups and elected officials are pushing to close the Pilgrim plant, which produces about 80 percent of the state's clean energy.

"It's the best carbon-free energy source we have, and we're all going to be breathing the dirty air from coal and gas if we shut these plants down," Moulton said. "Obviously, Pilgrim has had some serious deficiencies and safety issues that need to be addressed, but I would rather have seen a plan to fix it than just shutting it down."

Last month, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission downgraded Pilgrim's safety rating to one of its lowest levels in response to a shutdown last year and other equipment failures.

Pilgrim, which began operating in 1972, was re-licensed for 20 years in 2012 amid objections from anti-nuclear activists. The plant generates about 680 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power more than 600,000 homes.

Moulton said researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere are developing a new generation of nuclear technology that will be safer, cleaner and more reliable.

His position puts him at odds with other members of the state's congressional delegation who view nuclear as outdated and who heralded last week's news of the Pilgrim plant's closure.

Sen. Ed Markey, a longtime critic of Pilgrim's safety record, said in a statement that the price tag for fixing the plant - estimated at more than $100 million - demonstrates that nuclear is no longer a viable energy source.

“While nuclear energy was once advertised as being too cheap to meter, it is increasingly clear that it is actually too expensive to matter," the Malden Democrat said. "Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is just the latest example of how nuclear power simply cannot compete in the current energy market."

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, said she agrees that nuclear power is viable, but lingering safety concerns and a lack of storage facilities for radioactive waste diminish its effectiveness.

"We cannot immediately discount such a powerful source of energy that produces so few emissions, but we also cannot endorse expanding the nuclear industry until we can ensure the health, security, and safety of the American public," Tsongas said.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said losing Pilgrim "highlights the need for clean, reliable, affordable energy." He has touted his administration's proposals to tap Canadian hydropower and expand the use of renewables.

"The closure of Pilgrim will be a significant loss of carbon-free electricity generation and will offset progress Massachusetts has made in achieving the 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, making it more challenging to hit these targets," he said in a statement.

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said generous state subsidies for solar projects and other renewables are squeezing nuclear power out of the regional energy market.

"To provide affordable, competitive pricing, the open electricity markets in New England must continue to be refined without further subsidies and interventions that pick winners and losers," he said.

Currently, about 44 percent of the region's energy comes from natural gas, while another 34 percent comes from nuclear power, according to ISO New England, the nonprofit organization that oversees the region's power grid. Coal accounts for 5 percent; hydropower and other renewables represent 15 percent. Only 1 percent is derived from oil.

Energy companies are lobbying hard on Beacon Hill for support from Baker and lawmakers for a new natural gas pipeline across the state and parts of southern New Hampshire - in part to deliver fuel to the state’s power plants.

But the plan, which hinges on federal approval, has met with opposition from property owners and environmental groups.

While only a handful of new nuclear plants have come online in recent years, pro-nuclear power groups say fixing the nation's existing facilities is essential to meeting energy needs and fighting climate change.

“Taking Pilgrim offline is the functional equivalent to putting 40,000 more cars on the road," said Judd Gregg, a former New Hampshire senator and co-chair of the Washington D.C.-based Nuclear Matters.

"If you're concerned about global warming," he said, "closing down plants before the end of their useful life is like cutting off your nose to spite your face."



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