Nuclear Plant Outage Raises Questions of Resiliency
By Tim Cronin
A local story that didn’t receive a lot of attention during last week’s frigid weather and winter storm was the reactor shutdown at Massachusetts’ only nuclear power plant. The shutdown raises questions about energy resiliency in Massachusetts and highlights the state’s need for non-nuclear clean energy alternatives.
Pilgrim Nuclear Plant
Built 46 years ago, the Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Plymouth Massachusetts provides an average of 688 MW of electricity. That’s enough electricity to power nearly 600,000 homes and businesses in Eastern Massachusetts. Operation costs, the age of the plant, and local opposition have contributed to its slated closure announced for June 2019.
In 2017, nuclear energy provided twice as much electricity to the Massachusetts grid than non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, etc). Meaning, once permanently closed, new clean energy sources will need to be found to replace what the plant currently provides to the grid.
January Winter Shutdown
On January 4th the plant’s reactor went offline following a partial loss of offsite electricity caused by two downed power lines on Cape Cod, more than 10 miles from the plant. Offsite electricity is crucial to maintaining a stable reactor temperature, and preventing a nuclear meltdown.
The reactor did not return to full efficiency until January 10th. According to Entergy, Pilgrim’s parent company, “preventative maintenance” was the cause of the almost one week shutdown following the outage. During the shutdown, out-of-state oil imports were needed to make up the energy deficit and keep electricity prices stable.
Wider Issues Highlighted
The shutdown of an entire nuclear reactor due to an outage on just two power lines highlights the need for greater grid resiliency. Severe winter weather is commonplace in New England and requires strong, distributed energy sources to keep prices low and electricity flowing to homes and businesses.
At the same time, the state needs be take steps towards reducing carbon emissions so as to meet its legal mandate under the Global Warming Solutions Act. This past week’s increase in oil imports due to the shutdown no doubt dramatically increased the state’s carbon footprint and threatens the Commonwealth’s ability to comply with the law. To achieve its emissions mandate, the eventual lost capacity caused by the permanent closure of Pilgrim should be replaced by other local renewable energy sources.
Building a More Resilient & Cleaner Grid
As a recent Boston Globe editorial puts it, policymakers should prioritize expanding our renewable energy portfolio by moving forward with ongoing clean-energy procurement. At the same time, Massachusetts can take steps towards increasing resiliency across the board by passing climate adaptation legislation and ensuring a 21st century electric grid. The state can also incentivize further renewable development by expanding the renewable portfolio standard, raising the cap on net metering, and ensuring new SMART regulations work to promote shared community solar.
Regardless of which non-hydro renewable energy source is chosen, Massachusetts ought to be prepared by 2019 to fill the capacity lost by Pilgrim’s closing. Otherwise we are likely going to see a permanent increase in net fossil fuel imports, a scenario that would increase carbon emissions by magnitudes more than this past week’s shutdown did.
About the author: Tim assists in coordinating CABA’s Policy Program, and is a young professional with experience in community organizing and state politics. He is currently pursuing a B.A. in Economics at Stonehill College. Tim has previously studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University, and has interned at the State House and in local government. He currently serves as student-body president at Stonehill College where he has continued to fight for sustainable initiatives such as fossil fuel divestment, expanding the college’s solar farm, and reducing food waste. Tim is on the board of a local civic association in his hometown of Weymouth, and is the founder of the community nonprofit Green Weymouth. Tim enjoys reading The Economist, listening to podcasts, and exploring state parks in his free time.