My Turn: Seabrook is good for the state and the environment

  • The Seabrook nuclear power plant. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 6/13/2016 12:15:06 AM

Now is the time for New Hampshire lawmakers to place a value on Seabrook’s carbon-free energy. Seabrook generates 52 percent of the state’s electricity while emitting no air pollutants or greenhouse gases, yet it receives no recognition for its environmental attributes or its role in ensuring power reliability.

Due to competition from low-cost natural gas and heavily subsidized wind power, Seabrook is at high risk of being shuttered. Unless the state Legislature takes prompt action to correct distortions in the electricity market that tilt wholesale power purchases toward natural gas plants, Seabrook could be shut down.

We have already said farewell to several well-performing nuclear plants around the country. Since 2012, utilities have either closed or announced plans to shutter eleven reactors. This has been caused by the ultra-low cost of fracked natural gas, used in plants that pay no penalty for carbon dioxide emission. There is no carbon tax, but wind and solar are subsidized by construction tax credits, production tax credits and requirement that a certain amount be bought.

As governments know, and the famous Supreme Court case in our history said, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” New England has already lost Vermont Yankee, and the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts is scheduled to close by June 2019, leaving only Seabrook and the Millstone plant in Connecticut as the region’s remaining sources of nuclear-generated electricity.

Vermont Yankee’s power is being replaced by natural gas power, and the CO2 emissions in New England have increased. Check ISO-New England’s website.

Seabrook is vital to ensuring a reliable supply of electricity, now and for the future. Over the past three years, the 1,246-megawatt plant has produced power at nearly 90 percent of capacity, far higher than either natural gas or coal plants. And although renewables are emission-free, wind and solar power supply electricity only intermittently, at times when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Wind and solar require back-up power from fossil fuels when the weather isn’t cooperating. By contrast, Seabrook produces large amounts of carbon-free energy reliably around the clock, day in and day out.

Make no mistake, the U.S. fleet of nuclear plants supplies nearly 60 percent of the nation’s zero-carbon electricity. From the standpoint of climate policy, it won’t work without nuclear power.

“You can’t get to the type of carbon emissions people want to get to . . . unless you continue to use aggressive nuclear policy and have the nuclear fleet continue to function,” said former New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg, who is now co-chairman of Nuclear Matters, a national nuclear advocacy group.

There is an urgent need to implement public policies that keep Seabrook in operation. Closing it prematurely would be bad for consumers, energy security and the environment. It would lead to the burning of even more fossil fuels, adding to the burden of carbon in the atmosphere and making it impossible to meet EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions over 2005 levels by 2030.

There’s something else to consider: Closing Seabrook would devastate communities near the plant.

Seabrook employs more than 650 well-paid employees with an annual payroll of $79 million, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The plant, moreover, pays over $23 million in state and local taxes, and it contributes $470 million to the local economy.

The transmission grid operator is concerned that increasing reliance on natural gas for electricity generation could lead to power shortages and volatile electricity prices. In 2014, on the coldest day of a “polar vortex” storm that pummeled the eastern United States, ISO New England, which operates the region’s bulk power system, fell short of generating capacity from coal and gas plants. If not for nuclear power, the region would have experienced brownouts and blackouts. During that time Liquefied Natural Gas from Mideast tankers was bought and pumped into the pipelines. Wonder why the price of electricity spiked? Some energy policy!

Because the wholesale electricity market in New Hampshire is not correctly reflecting the environmental benefits of nuclear generation and the value that comes from fuel diversity, the state Legislature must intervene. Time is of the essence. We need a sense of urgency.

(Howard Shaffer of Enfield is a nuclear engineer.)

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