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My Turn: What does New England need? More nukes!

If someone had suggested a decade ago that natural gas – and not coal or nuclear power – would become the dominant fuel for electricity production in New England, the idea would have been dismissed as absurd.

Back in 2000, there was a balanced mix of energy sources – coal, natural gas, nuclear power and hydro. But with a surge in the production of natural gas from a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in shale, an abundance of low-cost gas is now available for electricity production. In some places, this gas is a cheaper source of electricity than coal or even nuclear power, as was seen in the decision earlier this year to prematurely close Vermont Yankee in late 2014.

Electricity companies have mixed emotions about natural gas, and for good reason. Although natural gas is clean burning, it has a history of price volatility, sudden swings in price that are in sharp contrast to coal and nuclear power. People in California and Texas, two states that now rely on natural gas for more than half of their power, haven’t forgotten the huge spike in electricity prices a few years ago after the cost of gas spiraled upward and there wasn’t enough power from alternative sources to replace it.

Solar and wind power were of limited use. Today they supply such a small share of electricity in most parts of the country that it will be a long time before renewable sources can make a meaningful difference.

In New England, electricity production from gas plants has reached 50 percent of power use, three times what it had been in 2000. Earlier this year, we narrowly avoided serious electric-power reliability problems after a scarcity of gas-pipeline capacity in the Northeast led to a bottleneck in gas supply. New England’s independent system operator (ISO-NE), which manages the region’s electricity grid, said the greatest risk to New England’s energy security is its increasingly heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity generation.

Nationally, since 1995, roughly 75 percent all new electricity generating capacity built has been gas-fired – almost 350,000 megawatts. Coal and nuclear power accounted for just six percent of the total. And over the next decade another 50,000 megawatts of gas-fired capacity – possibly as much as 100,000 megawatts – will be added.

Natural gas prices are already increasing. So far this year, the average price of natural gas delivered to electricity generators is 44 percent higher than in the first six months of 2012. As utilities use more gas for electricity generation, as more gas is used in industry and transportation, as exports of LNG ramp up, gas prices will surely rise.

It’s clearly time for state governments in New England to recognize the urgency, and to set our region on a clear strategy of maintaining a balanced mix of energy sources, along with improvements in efficiency, while holding the line on the amount of natural gas used for electricity generation.

Here’s why: With more and more coal units likely to close under increasing environmental pressure, we can’t afford to allow zero-carbon nuclear power to languish. Anyone concerned about climate change ought to recognize that natural gas, though cleaner than coal, has its own environmental problems. Natural gas plants account for a quarter of the carbon emissions from electricity production. By contrast, nuclear plants are carbon-free.

In most cases, the production cost of electricity from operating nuclear plants is competitive with electricity from natural gas plants, although large new nuclear plants are more expensive. But the higher cost is deceptive. Large nuclear plants cost more to build than comparable gas plants because they are required to build and maintain costly systems to shield their radioactivity from the environment. If gas plants were similarly required to control emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants they generate, they would cost significantly more than nuclear plants do. But markets in states where electricity is unregulated, like those in New England, don’t take this disparity into account.

The fact is, nuclear power contributes to the fuel and technology diversity that is one of the bedrock characteristics of a safe and reliable electric sector. It helps to maintain grid stability. And it is vitally important in strengthening regional and state economies through creation of large numbers of well-paying jobs and providing revenue for government at all levels. A recently-completed study done for the Nuclear Energy Institute has determined that Seabrook provides an annual impact of nearly $1 billion to the New Hampshire and Massachusetts economies.

High priority should go to renewing the operating licenses of the Seabrook and Pilgrim plants, which supply base-load power around the clock. And to meet the growing need for carbon-free energy, policymakers in New England should encourage electricity producers to participate in the Department of Energy’s cost-sharing program aimed at bringing a new generation of small modular reactors nearer reality. These factory-built reactors are under 300 megawatts and can be added at a competitive cost per unit of output one module at a time as the need for more electricity arises. If the promise of these new reactors is fulfilled, they will reduce carbon emissions and spur economic growth.

(Bob Leach of Brattleboro, Vt., is a retired radiation protection manager and certified senior reactor operator.)

Legacy Comments9

I dont believe...that there is one US company left that has the ability to actually build a nuclear power plant. One time where I hope I am wrong...

You are mostly correct - Parsons Brinckerhoff use to be one but France is now the go to nuclear knowledge base

Happily, a large majority of people in the USA don't agree with this view of nuclear power. Many nuclear physicists don't believe generating electricity is an appropriate use of nuclear technology. Profiteers are the ones who feed us this sort of stuff.

There is strong anti-corporate, anti-capitalism, anti profiteer sentiment throughout every one of the ghn1 posts. It is no coincidence every one of those posts look like they are plagiarized straight from this web site: http://cpusa.org/party-program/#2

It is unfortunate that we have reached the point where profiteering has become the new American way. Frankly I don't understand why the Stars and Stripes hasn't been replaced by a big $ sign. Businesses are there to make money(profit) I will give concede that point gladly. I have an issue with the belief that profit is good, more profit is better and obscene profit is the best, when this windfall comes at the expense of the workers. Nothing builds profits better than outsourcing, layoffs and cutting hours and benefits. What would you like going back to the idea of the company store, indentured servitude and slavery. All things by the way that have been used to create profit in the past. When all the rhetoric settles, the bottom line is, this country was made great by the middle class pure and simple. Strangling the middle class in the name of profit may be good capitalism but it is in my opinion it goes against the very fiber of this great nation. So if this makes me a leftwinger, I ask why isn't everyone??

It is getting exhausting having to always prove statements posted here by the extreme left are false.... Here is 1 poll to again refute the above statement "Gallup found 57 percent support for nuclear energy" http://www.gallup.com/poll/153452/Americans-Favor-Nuclear-Power-Year-Fukushima.aspx

People that prefer to be informed should read about the ITER project going on in France. This 36 country collaboration in fusion will be able to provide unlimited clean power for eternity

Contrary to popular belief I am somewhat familiar with the ITER project. This is new modern technology unlike what is in use in the US today. A question that begs to be asked, Is how can this project be accepted being it is a collaborative effort between nations not controlled by us. There must be a socialist agenda buried somewhere. I am all for new technology, the nuclear power plant of today generated power the same way a coal, oil or wood plant does, basically just a steam engine with a different way to make steam. Jury rigged 1950's technology at it's finest., what ever generates the most profits.

Your post shows that you may benefit from some research on the difference between fusion and fission

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