An Update On Seabrook Station & A Look At The Future Of Nuclear Energy In New England

Sep 28, 2019

Credit Credit NHPR

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a federal hearing to address cracks in the concrete at Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant. The safety and longevity concerns around this facility raise larger questions about the role of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.  We look at the role of Seabrook as part of the New England energy grid,, and the conversations around the use of nuclear energy now and in the future. 

Original air date: Monday, September 28, live at 9 a.m. and again at 7 p.m.
 

GUESTS:

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio. I'm Laura Knoy, and this is The Exchange.

New Hampshire's Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant makes a major contribution to our region's energy supply. It's responsible for more than 50 percent of the power generated here in the state. And Seabrook, combined with Connecticut's Millstone Station, provides 30 percent of all of New England's electricity. And that power is produced without fossil fuels, which nuclear supporters say is a strong selling point, giving rising emphasis on the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Laura Knoy:
But Seabrook is also all and has shown cracks in its concrete. Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a panel of judges held a regional public hearing on this, where residents expressed their deep concerns about contamination and radiation, especially since the commission recently renewed seabirds operating license through the year 2050. Today, in exchange, what to expect for Seabrook and the broader role of nuclear energy here in New England.

Laura Knoy:
We have two guests. Annie Ropeik is with me in studio, NHPR's reporter on the Seacoast, Energy and the Environment and Annie. Thank you very much. Nice to see you.

Annie Ropeik:
Thanks for having me.

Laura Knoy:
Also with us, Bruce Gellerman, senior reporter for WBUR in Boston. He is part of the EarthWhile Team, which focuses on energy and the environment. You can find Bruce's three part series on nuclear power in New England on our Web site. And Bruce Gellerman, great to have you back. Thank you for being with us.

Bruce Gellerman:
Hi, Laura.

Laura Knoy:
Well, so both of you will cover this hearing in just a moment. What residents said, what that panel of judges said, the company has said. But first, Bruce, please, the big picture. What are the fundamental questions around nuclear energy, Bruce? Here in New Hampshire, in New England?

Bruce Gellerman:
Well, one is the energy itself. You know, how much energy do we need? Where's it supposed to come from and what kind of energy is it? You know, nuclear energy is is carbon free. So that gives it, you know, an added bonus, a big added bonus as we go forward in terms of changing our energy mix here. It's also very powerful. I mean, it's extraordinary. You said 30 percent of our energy?

Bruce Gellerman:
Well yeah, I just checked. Right now, it's about 29 percent of our electricity is coming from a nuclear power plants in Connecticut and Seabrook there. But but the overall capacity is 20 percent. If you looked compared to how much we how much we could generate, it's about 20 percent here in New England. So it's a big chunk. I mean, those you know, there's three reactors at two plants. That's an enormous amount of power. But then, of course, there's people who live near the plant. They have certain concerns, of course.

Bruce Gellerman:
And of course, there's waste issues. There's proliferation issues, terms of terrorism, using this stuff to make dirty bombs go combustible bombs. So you've got all those all those issues coming together right now. And we're at a, I think, an inflection point in terms of our energy mix, because we've got greenhouse gas concerns to worry about climate warming.

Laura Knoy:
Well, an inflection point, and that's a perfect way to put it. Bruce, so just give us a little bit more there in terms of what that inflection point feels like for people working in the energy field and people who are concerned about the environment.

Bruce Gellerman:
This is the point, I think that people really need to know it about 2032, 2035. We have aspirational goals in New England. I think five out of the six New England states have greenhouse gas goals, whether it's 80 percent or 75 percent or by 2050 to reduce over our greenhouse gas emissions compared to nineteen ninety.

Bruce Gellerman:
So those are very ambitious, you know, and there's some saying we want to push to 100 percent by 2050. But the problem is, is that we get 60 percent of our energy right now in New England from natural gas fossil fuels and we can't just shut off the tap. Now we would be sitting in the dark and there are well, we have aspirational goals for 2050 at 2030 to 35.

Bruce Gellerman:
We don't know how we're going to get from here to there. How we're going to keep the lights on after that. We we have hopes. You know, there's this. Some people hope for hydro. So people hope for offshore wind and some hope. People hope for a miracle. This energy efficiency has all kinds of ways, but got to get that energy from someplace in right now. If we want to lower our carbon footprint and produce the anticipated needs of, you know, meet the anticipated needs of the energy in the future where we have no way of getting there.

Laura Knoy:
Annie, I love the way Bruce puts it. We are at an inflection point when it comes to nuclear power. I'd love your thoughts on how much you're hearing that sort of wrestling among people here in New Hampshire.

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah, absolutely. I think this is a huge sticking point for the environmental community here. You know, a lot of our older environmentalist, especially including many who are still in the state legislature, is the leading environmental groups. They cut their teeth protesting Seabrook in the 70s.

Annie Ropeik:
You know, we have founders of the Clamshell Alliance as some of the most famous anti-nuclear protests in the nation's history. Thousands of people protesting and arrested over the years as the plant was being built back back then. And so these are some of the same people that are still involved in environmentalism in the state. In the era of climate change.

Annie Ropeik:
And in the era of natural gas, as Bruce points out, you know, we've seen past closures of nuclear plants in New England. Arguably, you could say, have led to more gas on the grid. That's another point of debate. And so really, those are the kind of debates that we see about, you know, how how much carbon is nuclear truly offsetting the idea of bridge fuels, which sometimes we also hear natural gas referred to as a bridge fuel. You say that all the time. And because of these now just two nuclear plants, three reactors, as Bruce said. And this influx of gas.

Annie Ropeik:
We've, you know, all but eliminated coal and oil in this region, which is exceptional. I mean, that doesn't happen everywhere in the country. There's parts of the country that are still hugely reliant on coal and oil, which have far, far greater carbon emissions, especially than nuclear. But even the natural gas, there is even debate about how to consider nuclear as zero carbon or carbon neutral and those kinds of things. So, you know, it makes up so much of the fuel mix that it's something that environmentalists are really having to grapple with. And this idea of tradeoffs comes up for me again and again when we talk about climate change. And this is one of the tradeoffs that people are trying to figure out where they stand on.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and later in the hour, we will talk to a leading national environmental scientist. He'll describe what he calls the nuclear power dilemma, which both of you are kind of tapping into. So any new terms of Seabrook, Bruce, sort of give us the big picture, how very important nuclear power is to the region. I'd love your thoughts, too, on how important Seabrook is to New Hampshire in terms of energy, in terms of jobs, in terms of the economy and so forth.

Annie Ropeik:
So NextEra says that there are 650 direct jobs at the plant and that it supports about 26 hundred jobs in the state overall. NextEra says that there is 535 million dollars of economic impact on the region from Seabrook. And, you know, we hear at meetings about Seabrook public hearings and such, you'll often see union workers from the IBEW come out to support the plan as they often support big energy infrastructure because it provides their jobs, pays their bills. And we also see local officials, especially in the town of Seabrook, they're some of the biggest supporters of the plant. You'll always see a couple of, you know, local select board members come out to say we really value this plant. We believe NextEra when they say that it is operating safely and we would not like to see it close.

Annie Ropeik:
You know, the farther you get from Seabrook, the less town and state officials are, you know, kind of on board with the plan, especially in Massachusetts. They've been a lot more critical of Seabrook than New Hampshire has since it's right on the state line and the radius. You know, we always talk about as far as who would be affected if there was an accident there. It extends far into Massachusetts as well. So, you know, it's a big piece of industry. We don't have a ton of big industrial employers like this, even big power plants left in New Hampshire, let alone New England. And so, you know, it's it's a big chunk of that local economy. And it would have a big impact if it ever were to close.

Laura Knoy:
And Bruce, I'd love your information, your comments on how political leaders in Massachusetts view Seabrook, especially as any points out there, a lot of towns right there on the border. I also read recently that one of your members of Congress in Massachusetts had some pretty strong things to say about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission relicensing Seabrook till 2050. So go ahead, Bruce, please.

Bruce Gellerman:
Yeah, there's definitely concerns. Senator Markey here has he's a big proponent, opponent of Seabrook in nuclear power in general in terms of the NRC, his ability to regulate and oversee the safe operation. You know, we had Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant here and it was rated the worst operating power plant in the nation. So there is there are sincere concerns, especially a plant that's as old and troubled as Seabrook. I mean, you know, it's going on what could be operating now until 2050. They've just re license it. So, you know, there I know you will have I think I there's somebody on later,from C10, I think about talking about the cracks in the concrete.

Bruce Gellerman:
You know, these the power plants were designed in the 1960s. They're based upon submarines, designed the 1950s. A lot it's a lot of their technology is not in digital technology. It's old analog. You know, imagine having a car that that's older, your appliances at home. I mean, they do maintain these. They're very expensive to maintain. They're all one off plants. So they have unique, you know, designs and unique materials. They have the most of the country companies that made their components no longer exist. So operating these plants is very expensive. Keeping them up. Absolutely great condition is very difficult and expensive. So there are a lot of concerns here in Massachusetts.

Bruce Gellerman:
We have very little, it's incredible how little states have authority over. The operation of a nuclear power plant on their territory. We had that whole thing in here in Massachusetts with Pilgrim. We just. The plant is Pilgrim was decommissioned. You know, is being sold. License was transferred to another company recently. They shut down. They pulled the plug on this thing. And and now we have the attorney general in Massachusetts who's actually gone to federal court to sue the NRC, saying that they failed to act. And then the transfer is not legal and that it's unsafe. And you're going to have the same concerns up there, obviously. You know, you have a very big reactor that that reactor is about almost double the size of Seabrook. He works at 700 megawatts. There's like eleven hundred fifty switch, 70 percent bigger. You know, it's it's very troubled.

Laura Knoy:
So it's interesting. Yeah. Because it seems like even though these facilities are located locally, obviously there's federal oversight here and federal control. And so it it gets confusing for people who want to have a voice. Go ahead, Annie.

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah. I mean, to Bruce's point about the idea of having a car that runs on technology from the 1970s, we're also talking about materials that were literally built and put in the ground in the 70s. I mean, this plant is made of concrete that is decades old and oak concrete is concrete. You know, it lasts for a long, long time. We have bridges and roads that are made of decades old concrete, but it does require upkeep and monitoring. And Bruce is right that the federal government is almost exclusively responsible for that oversight in partnership with the plant's owner, and that the state just sort of gets to sit by and watch. You know, the last time I think that New Hampshire really had direct sort of black and white oversight of Seabrook was in the 70s when the site evaluation committee license the plant, which I've been thinking a lot about. Imagine them having that before them these days in the northern pass area would be quite interesting. So, you know, it's a different time, different technology, different politics and all of that comes into play.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, go ahead, Bruce Yes, go ahead.

Bruce Gellerman:
You know, there was supposed to be two reactors at Seabrook. Right. And the protesters were able to defeat the second one, basically, because the skyrocketing cost of the second reactor was going to go some from like 500 million dollars, two to five billion dollars, a tenfold increase. So, you know, the local activists who were convinced, you know, it was money, money talked very loud back then to our listeners, both of you.

Laura Knoy:
And I want to remind everybody, we welcome your questions and comments about Seabrook in particular, but about nuclear power more broadly here in New England.

Laura Knoy:
And Natalie joins us on the line. Hi, Natalie. Thanks for calling in. Go ahead.

Caller:
Hey, Laura, thank you so much. So my name is Natalie Treat and I'm the executive director of the C-10 Research and Education Foundation based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. And we are the group that brought this federal hearing before the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that took place regarding Seabrook Concrete last week in Newburyport.

Laura Knoy:
So that was your doing, go ahead, Natalie.

Caller:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So it was a pretty remarkable hearing. I'm glad that he was able to be there and watch the many dozens of local folks who came out to express their ideas about this hearing. But first about CNN is a pro safety group. And yes, nuclear is an important part of our regional energy mix and jobs. But I think it's important for listeners to know that Seabrook is the first nuclear plant in the nation known to have this complex problem called alkali silica reaction with its concrete. And you were talking about the technology in the 70s.

Caller:
Well, also, we had pretty different building codes for nuclear plants that didn't account for this problem. So it's pretty serious. You know, that they're there aren't really the right protocols to figure out for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission guiding them to how to deal with this. They had the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed NextEra, the plant owner of Seabrook, to develop their own testing protocols and monitoring and analysis. And they didn't bring in any true outside independent experts.

Caller:
Our little group, a small citizen's group, were the ones to provide that independent oversight. And we were very fortunate to have one of the world's leading experts in this problem. Dr. Victor Saouma, who's from the University of Colorado in Boulder. And he, frankly, kind of ran circles around the dozen expert...

Laura Knoy:
Natalie, I'm sorry. I think we lost you there, but I did want to ask you, Annie, and I know this has been an issue. These cracks, people are concerned. And more to the point that Natalie makes, the way that these cracks were monitored or any problems were monitored was not exactly the standard way that you would want them to be monitored. That's been the critique, anyway, by C 10. Natalie, thank you for calling in.

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah, that's right. So. So this hearing was, according to the NRC, a pretty unusual occurrence. They don't happen or happen very often. And what happened was C 10 made this allegation to the NRC that the way in which next area had studied the cracking problem at Seabrook was not sufficient or was not adequate. And therefore, the monitoring plan that they based on that study was also inadequate. And so the NRC found that that contention was worth investigating that seat and had standing to bring that argument. And they granted them this evidentiary hearing which took place last week. And I can read a little bit from next to a statement that we got if you want to.

Laura Knoy:
Yes. And I do want to let listeners know, because we hear on The Exchange try to reach out to everybody so we can fully educate our listeners. Next hour, I did say we appreciate you reaching out and inviting us to take part. However, we have decided not to participate. So I just want let people know that we did do our due diligence there. Go ahead. Yeah, that's right.

Annie Ropeik:
So instead of coming on the show, we have a spokeswoman sent us a written statement about last week's hearing. She says, Seabrook is an important regional asset that plays a vital role in our energy infrastructure supplies clean, reliable, low cost energy to New England. And of last week's hearing, they say they value public dialogue. Appreciate the opportunity to hear from the public as part of that process. And they say their monitoring program was developed by qualified, credentialed structural engineering experts, has gone scrutiny, undergone scrutiny by federal experts, and that it's effective, comprehensive and approved by regulators. So regulators did approve that as part of Seabrook relicensing. And I can get in to sort of the details of that plan a little more.

Laura Knoy:
Natalie, thank you for the call. You're listening to The Exchange on NH PR. So, Bruce, could we talk about the regulators? They're the ones who are supposed to balance risk and reward for the public to see that these plants operate safely. What's the level of public trust in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

Bruce Gellerman:
Well, I can tell you, within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself, there's trouble. You know, because, you know, the last NRC commissioner, the chair of the the commission, you guy named Gregory Jaczko Co-wrote a book recently, last year called it was a Diary of...

Annie Ropeik:
A Rogue Nuclear Regulator.

Bruce Gellerman:
And he lambastes the industry, which he can. You know, he was the head of the commission. You know, I dealt with him for maybe 30 years. So it goes up and down in terms of of within the agency itself.

Bruce Gellerman:
You know, they see themselves as basically engineers and their interests are protecting the public and safely operating these plants. But it's within this, the laws and the laws are very intricate and interpretive. Of course. So, you know, this is a unique situation, this whole HSR correct stuff. I mean, you know, they've had it up in Canada in some of the dams up there for for hydro. But it's a unique thing. And the reason is, of course, any pride know a lot more about this than I do. But it's it's the sand that came out of the St. Lawrence River way round there. It has a very high silica value in so that they have this unique issue. So we're trying to resolve this stuff is mind boggling. Complicated. I was going through some of the science and engineering studies. And it is really I mean, you're your eyes will roll in the back of your head it's so complicated. So how the public is supposed to understand this and deal with this unique issue. I mean, it's it's extraordinary.

Laura Knoy:
But at a fundamental level, any, you know, cracks don't sound good when we're talking about a nuclear power plant.

Annie Ropeik:
Sure. It's scary. I mean, it's scary to hear that they are forming, that they're spreading. And you picture. You know that the thing is literally crumbling, which, you know, is, of course, not actually the case. If you stand in front of the plant, it looks fine. But so really what this is, is like if you see a concrete sidewalk that's got these little spider hairline cracks in it forming, that sort of look like the concrete is still fused together. But it's just got these these hairline fractures in it.

Annie Ropeik:
It's caused by like Bruce at a high silicon contact. And the silicon reacts in a way that forms this gel, that kind of expands in little fissures. And sure, it over time. And so it's it's just that the concrete is, you know, some it's deficient in a small way, that next area. What they did was recreated those conditions in a lab in Texas. They commissioned a study using sort of purpose made concrete. So not concrete from Seabrook, but they studied sort of a recreation of the problem and based their plan to monitor. Seabrook cracks on the results of that test, which is that's what groups like Stan say was insufficient. They say that the study should be done at Seabrook. The results should be released to the public and end that. None of that has taken place and regulators have approved that plan as is as being safe for the plant to move forward.

Bruce Gellerman:
Ok. You said you would do it narrowly, as you know you do. You have destructive testing right at the site. So you actually destroy. See how strong this stuff was understood under pressure and sort of the work that is a nuclear scenario. It's an it's a nuclear power plant. Do that. Right. So you see that eliminates that kind of testing. But Amy, I have a question for you. I had read some someplace that actually the NRC had ruled at some point that these cracks because the gel actually is stronger because of that.

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah, I've heard that, too. I mean, I guess it goes to show like how much debate there still is around there isn't it? Sort of depends on who you ask, what kind of scientist you're asking or whether you act to ask next error or C10, you know, their expert or their expert that these cracks may or may not be a good thing about bad, a problematic thing or not. But one thing I wanted to mention also is that I know that one thing I heard at this hearing last week, there was a public hearing the first night of the adjudicated process where the public could come in, comment on on on the situation.

Annie Ropeik:
And a lot of people said, you know, even if the NRC finds or tells me that these cracks are safe, I'm not going to trust them like the trust between the community and the regulators. And the plant in a lot of ways has broken down. And that's exacerbated by past recent nuclear disasters like Fukushima. And people have been burned by nuclear power to the point that they are scared to live near it. And it is hard to change their minds. And when presented with a problem like this, which has Bruce mentioned, is this is the only nuclear plant in the country that's known to have this problem. So that's that's a real problem for next year to deal with. And they say they are dealing with it in the NRC, agrees that they're dealing with it. But it's going to be hard to convince a lot of neighbors that that's enough. And so I think, you know, the results of this hearing are going to come out by January. The regulators or the judges there, rather, may say we find that the the monitoring plan is insufficient. And the NRC should direct next area to make certain changes to it. Or they may say. Fine. Go ahead, keep your license as is.

Laura Knoy:
So we're still in a process.

Annie Ropeik:
Oh, yeah. And the license. You know, the operation may or may not change the result of this, but we'll see if people are even convinced by whatever happens there.

Laura Knoy:
All right. We've got a lot more to talk about. And coming up, we'll also be joined by an environmental scientist who describes what he calls the nuclear power dilemma. You're listening to The Exchange on NHPR.

This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy.. Today, the future of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant and of nuclear energy in New England. This low carbon power source is getting a fresh look lately. Here in the region and around the country, we want your thoughts, questions, comments. Our guests are Annie Ropeik with me in studio. NHPR's reporter on the Seacoast Energy and the Environment. Joining us from Boston, Bruce Gellerman, senior reporter for WBUR part of WBUR's Earth while team, which focuses on energy and the environment. And Bruce, a quick question for you. So as we talk about Seabrook and getting its license renewed till 2050, some of the concerns that have come up in Massachusetts in your area, remind us what has happened to the nuclear power plant in Massachusetts. Pilgrim you mentioned earlier that that has been decommissioned. What's been the impact of that and why was Pilgrim shut down so it hasn't been decommissioned?

Bruce Gellerman:
That's going to happen in the future, it was shut down at the end of May.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, I see. I thought the two kind of went hand in glove. I apologize.

Annie Ropeik:
Like the physical process.

Bruce Gellerman:
I think it's a physical process. Exactly. And so what happens is they shut it down on May 31 after 47 years of operating. And now they've got to deal with all the waste that was that's been generated because the federal government was supposed to take this waste back in the 80s and they never did. So every nuclear power plant the United States has, all of the energy that it the fuel that it ever used still onsite. So you've got you know, with 97, we have over 100 well over 100 plants that sites with nuclear waste. Now there are 97 operating nuclear plants. The United States Pilgrim now is not operating. And that waste could stay there for ad infinitum. And nobody really knows. The government had pledged to take it off their hands. And they've been sued by the companies that own these nuclear plants saying, hey, you, we've been paying in our ratepayers and paying it for years and we've accumulated hundreds, billions of dollars. Plymouth has a decommissioning fund of over a billion dollars. And much of that is supposed to go to getting that waste off site. And the United States government, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was supposed to open it. Never did it to the billion dollar since a 12 billion dollar hole in the ground. And the nuclear industry is is is really up in arms. They've successfully won every single lawsuit against the federal government to retrieve money from that money that was supposed to go to take the stuff off site has won.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I'm glad you put Pilgrim in the bigger context, Bruce, because with us now on the line is someone who has been looking at the national picture concerning nuclear power. We're joined by Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis at the Climate Energy Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. And Steve, welcome. Really nice to have you.

Steve Clemmer:
Good morning. Thanks for having me today.

Laura Knoy:
So last fall, your group published a comprehensive review of the nation's nuclear power plants called The Nuclear Dilemma. We've touched on this, Steve, but I love to hear from you, too. What is the nuclear dilemma?

Steve Clemmer:
Well, simply put, nuclear power plants around the country are shutting down at a time when we need every low carbon power source of power that we can get to limit the worst impacts of climate change. The science is telling us that we need to cut emissions in half globally by 2030, 10 years from now, and reach net zero emissions by mid century to keep global average temperature increases to one and a half degrees Celsius, which is a threshold at which the impacts of climate change get much worse. One of the key findings from our report, which was an economic analysis of the entire fleet in the US. We found that one third of existing nuclear plants in the U.S. are unprofitable or scheduled to close in the next decade.

Steve Clemmer:
And without any new policies, we found that if these plants and other kind of marginally economic plants that are on the edge, if they're closed before they're operating licenses expire, the electricity would be replaced primarily with natural gas.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Is this an odd position for you to be in? Steve, I have to say, when I first thought about the Union of Concerned Scientists, I thought I don't think those folks are in favor of nuclear power, but I'm not sure. So just talk about the sort of wrestling that your group has been doing with this issue.

Steve Clemmer:
Yeah, I think a lot of people, when we put this report out, a lot of people had suggested that her position on nuclear power change was just absolutely not the case. We've been a nuclear power safety watchdog for more than 40 years. We continue to be a watchdog for safety, which I was going to get to is the other part of this dilemma, which is, you know, to keep some of the existing plants operating from a climate perspective, we need to make sure that they're maintaining very high safety standards and addressing some of the issues that your previous guest mentioned related to waste disposal, security, proliferation and issues like that. But, you know, it's at the same time if we shut down plants that are economically for economic reasons and replace those with natural gas, that is going to cause emissions to rise at a time when we need to be achieving deep cuts in emissions. So UCS has long recognized that nuclear power is a low carbon source of electricity. And, you know, so that. So that's also been part of our position for a long time.

Laura Knoy:
Does the Union of Concerned Scientists consider nuclear carbon free or low carbon because some people say nuclear isn't completely carbon free?

Steve Clemmer:
Yeah, that's a good question.

Laura Knoy:
I don't know if we're splitting hairs there. But go ahead.

Steve Clemmer:
That's that's a great question.

Steve Clemmer:
You know, certainly the production of electricity from nuclear power does not produce carbon emissions. But when you look across the lifecycle of a nuclear plant, it does have some lifecycle carbon emissions, but they're relatively low on par with other sources, even wind and solar and hydro and other things like that. So it's. Yeah. So it is. That's the what? The reason why I use low carbon. But in terms of the actual generation of electricity now it does not produce any carbon emissions.

Laura Knoy:
Couple more questions for you, Steve, please. And then I want to bring any in Bruce back into our conversation. You looked again nationally at this. In what region of the country, Steve, did you see nuclear plants with the most potential problems? Where did they look? The the weakest?

Steve Clemmer:
Yeah, that's a good question. So the the parts of the things that affect the profitability of the plants are several different factors. We found that in places that have smaller single reactor plants, those tend to have higher operating costs because they can't take advantage of economies of scale from larger plants. The other factor is on the revenue side, where parts of the country that have low electricity prices, nuclear plants can't make as much money selling their power to the market. So the parts of the country where we found the biggest issues were in the Midwest and in the mid-Atlantic states. Another kind of important factor, too, is the market structure. So in places that have deregulated markets and private companies that are often known as merchant plants, they face greater economic risks than plants that are owned by regulated utilities. And because in those parts of the country where there's regulated utilities, they can recover their costs from ratepayers with approval from their public utility commissions. So the merchant plants really have a higher level of risk associated with them.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. And we touched on this a little bit earlier. But I like your thoughts, too, Steve, as you've looked across the country, what is the risk with some of these older plants? We talked earlier about cracks. What are some of the other potential risks that you've seen?

Steve Clemmer:
Yeah. Well, it varies by by reactor. But, you know, obviously, the issue you were talking about, the concrete degradation at Seabrook is a serious issue and that's likely to get worse over time, needs to be managed and monitored. And some of the issues that Stan is raising are very similar to some issues we raised several years ago with with concrete experts that we hired. You know, one thing that doesn't make sense to us is that there's actually buildings on site that were built for the second reactor that never actually was finished that used the same concrete as the structures that are degrading. So from our standpoint, I think C-10 made this argument to why don't they just test the concrete from those other buildings that are that are on site because it's essentially exactly the same materials that went into that concrete.

Laura Knoy:
I see instead of using this lab test which has been questioned, just use what's already there.

Steve Clemmer:
It's lab tests from Texas I think is where they did it. The other just a couple other quick examples. So the Crystal River plant in Florida and the San Onofre plant in California were both retired around 2013 and those had to do with failed steam generator replacements. And so as plants get older, they need to replace some of the aging equipment. And not only is that really expensive, but in the case of these two plants, it created other issues when they were replacing them that led to the decision to retire those plants.

Steve Clemmer:
The other factor that I really want to raise is that climate change is also going to really pose greater risks, not just to older plants, but to all plants over time. You know, the combination of increased flooding due to sea level rise and storm surges is a growing risk, especially for plants located on the coasts that will experience more intense hurricanes in the future. And then a higher air and water temperatures also are going to affect both the efficiency of operating those plants, but also affect cooling water temperatures, which when they reach a certain threshold, they can actually require plants to shut down or scale back their production because nuclear plants are often situated by water bodies, Steve.

Laura Knoy:
Right. Because they need the water as part of their process.

Steve Clemmer:
They need the water for cooling. Yeah. All nuclear power plants in the U.S. are light water reactors that use water for cooling and they actually use quite a large amount of water. So that's why you see a lot of plants located on on the ocean. There's also a lot of plants that are located on lakes and rivers that that's necessary for cooling those plants.

Laura Knoy:
And here in New England, Seabrook is right by the ocean practically. And Vermont Yankee was by the Connecticut River.

Annie Ropeik:
And Pilgrim was on Cape Cod Bay.

Laura Knoy:
OK, so Steve, while we have you got a couple technical questions from our listeners. Tim wrote us from Greenfield. He says, We are using old technology for our nuclear power plants. Tim says, Of course people are afraid. We need more education on what new nuclear power plants look like. Tim asks, what about molten salt reactors, which are well suited for using thorium as fuel? He says there are several other new nuclear designs ready to be built. How can we get away from the negative connotation to to the word nuclear? Tim says it's preventing us from achieving carbon free power operation. Tim, thank you for the e-mail and I'd love to toss that to you. Steve.

Steve Clemmer:
Yes. So first of all, molten salt reactors and some of the other advanced designs have really been along around for a long time. And those I would disagree with the caller that those are ready to go. There's still a long ways away from being ready. And there's serious concerns around whether those technologies can meet high safety standards. And there's also risks of proliferation and other things from those designs. The other thing is an economic question. So other other types of building new nuclear power plants is very expensive. The only plant that's currently being built in the U.S. are two reactors in Georgia. At the Vogel plant and the cost of the project has more than doubled to 28 billion dollars and it's more than five years behind schedule.

Laura Knoy:
Wow.

Steve Clemmer:
And so the cost of building new reactors is really expensive.

Steve Clemmer:
But I want to make it clear that continuing to operate existing reactors is much less expensive. Our report that we did, our analysis, we looked at different policies that could affect the profitability of these plants and found that a national price on carbon of about 25 dollars per ton would be enough to make all of the unprofitable plants in the country profitable. So it doesn't there's a fundamental difference between the cost of continuing to operate existing reactors versus building new reactors.

Laura Knoy:
So calling for a carbon tax there, Steve,.

Steve Clemmer:
You know, some kind of price on carbon. The other policy we recommend in the report was a low carbon electricity standard similar to how renewable standards work, but would also include technologies like nuclear and carbon capture and storage and other technologies that can reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Laura Knoy:
All right, Steve, it's good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Steve Clemmer:
You're welcome.

Laura Knoy:
Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He worked on that 2018 report. We talked about the "Nuclear Power Dilemma". You can find it on our Web site. And you're listening to The Exchange on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
So Bruce, what did you think about the profitability argument or description that we got there from Steve? Even if you think nuclear power is a good idea. These plants are running into some very high costs. What's behind that?

Bruce Gellerman:
Well, the high costs, actually, the ones that are operating well in this country produce electricity at relatively low costs, but certainly a cheaper than natural gas in many cases. So, you know, it's regional, so you can't judge one plant from another in different regions. Well, you know, the cost of constructing plants is very high here, but it was relatively low in Southeast Asia, for example, where they've been building nuclear power plants like gangbusters, South Korea, China, Malaysia, so on, because they have the expertise. We haven't licensed a new nuclear reactor in this country in twenty three or more years. We've lost the expertise. We don't have the industrial infrastructure for it for making these plants. You know, he cited Vogtle and in Georgia, those two plants that are now going to cost 20 billion dollars. They'll never be profitable.

Bruce Gellerman:
Those plants could never, ever be profitable at that cost. So how do you make a plant? Well, the first way I don't think you're going to be making those large plants anymore here. There's a whole movement. He talked about these this molten salt plants that they're large, they're very expensive, unproven. There is a whole movement here to make. Small modular reactors are just a fraction of the size of these large plants and kind of churn them out and mass produce them in factories, essentially, and could have job Johnny Appleseed them all over the country. There's some very interesting things that we could talk about if you'd like to, but you know the cost.

Bruce Gellerman:
You know, if it's doesn't make money, they can't scale. And if they can't scale, it's not going to solve the climate problem.

Laura Knoy:
Really interesting. Annie, what did you pull out from what we heard from Steve, again, that national picture?

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah, I think the idea of a low carbon energy standard I thought was such an interesting suggestion from that report that we covered last year. You know, we see even states like New Hampshire have renewable portfolio standards. So they require utilities to use certain amounts of solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, even. But nuclear is not considered a renewable technically because it is based on a finite resource, the radioactive materials that power nuclear plants. You know, once we exhaust all of them that exist, you know, it would take more time than we have to make more. And so, you know, in the same way that coal and natural gas are not renewables because they're based on a finite amount of fossil fuels. The natural resource based process. And so they're not technically renewable. They're just lower zero carbon. And so they are not folded into those standards in the same way.

Annie Ropeik:
And as we've been hearing, you know, that's more of a controversial, controversial proposal. But we've been seeing presidential candidates, the Democrats, all across the campaign trail. And I was at a thing with Bill Weld, the Republican candidate recently to former governor of Massachusetts. Nuclear is a big part of all of their plans. They all address it in some way. And a lot of them say keep well, not a lot of them. Some of them say keep existing plants open, don't build anymore.

Annie Ropeik:
Others say we need to move away from nuclear. It's time to start shutting those plants down. You don't see a role for nuclear in their carbon solutions. Others, including Bill Weld, say we should be building more. That's a great way to get to the goals that we need to get to quickly. Steve raised some interesting points about how quickly that technology could be deployed, even sort of the older school nuclear technology. But at the same time, I mean, offshore wind, for example, is a great prospect for New England. You know, I think in 30, 50 years, we could expect to see a lot of offshore wind here, but it's not going to happen overnight. And so if plants like Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee and maybe someday Seabrook are shutting down.

Annie Ropeik:
You know, it takes a lot to replace that baseload power. We just don't have a lot, like Bruce said in the beginning, a lot of other ways to supply that power in the short term. And so these are sort of the decisions that need to be made. And just to to make another nod to energy efficiency, as someone mentioned, I mean, that really is our best way to need less power. And so that's another alternative for states to focus more on is just using less power in the first place.

Laura Knoy:
Ok. Coming up, a lot more of your questions and comments as we look at the future of Seabrook nuclear power plants, specifically here in New Hampshire. And more broadly, the future of nuclear energy in New England. Stay with us. This is The Exchange on NH PR.

This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. Today, the future of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant and more broadly of nuclear energy. Here in New England, Annie Ropeik is here, NHPR reporter on the Seacoast Energy and then the environment, along with Bruce Gellerman, senior reporter for WBUR in Boston, part of WBURRs EarthWhile Team. And both of you, lots of emails from our listeners that I'd love to share and get your thoughts. Tom in Exeter asks, Could you ask your guests if breeder reactors, which don't have the nuclear waste issue, are any safer than nuclear reactors? Tom, thanks for the question. And Bruce, what do you know about this?

Bruce Gellerman:
Well, it is a technology. It's very expensive. It hasn't really worked out that we had in the 80s, I guess, as some attempts to make breeder reactors. You know, the idea is that you you take your spent fuel, which was only waste, you only used about 5 percent goes to energy production and that's retired as waste. You take that and you you make it produce more energy out of it. It does produce a proliferation materials and you have to be worried about those. So we haven't made a breeder reactor, although the nuclear waste problem is a problem from hell. It's pernicious.

Bruce Gellerman:
But, you know, the scientists will tell you we have the answer to dealing. We have answers to dealing with waste. It's not a lot of waste in terms of volume. It's a couple of football fields, about 30 or 40 feet high. All the entire production for the last 50, 60 years, the United States, 50 years of commercial production. They say that the problem is political. And there are places overseas, particularly in Scandinavia, that are going to soon open the first, you know, repositories for ways. So breeders are a possibility. They're very expensive. There is proliferation problems, meaning that you can take the materials that are that are produced by it and turn it into very, very powerful bombs.

Laura Knoy:
It does, yeah.

Annie Ropeik:
Does breeder mean that it sort creates its own fuel like on unrolling basis?

Bruce Gellerman:
Yes. It's essentially that, you know, I think the French use it in some of their reactors. I mean, 90 percent of the French energy comes from reactors which which but some of them are breeders. I think one there was one in England, very problematic. They're very expensive, hugely expensive. And they're very big, complicated.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you for that email, because that is not something that, you know, that has come up in this conversation and in other conversations about some of the concerns regarding nuclear power here in New England and some of the desires to keep nuclear power going here in New England.

Laura Knoy:
So thank you for that email. Here's another one from Jeff who says, After learning what I just did about the lack of disposal sites for nuclear waste after all these years, it makes me wonder what other nuclear related things have not been done yet that our society was told years ago we should be doing. Jeff says, for example, the Fukushima plants in Japan suffered their meltdowns because their generators one ground level when the tsunami hit. Have we learned from this and place the backup generators at the Seabrook nuclear power plant up high enough above sea level on that site? Jeff, that is a great question. And any we talked about this a little bit earlier, but it's worth noting that most nuclear plants are situated by water because they need the water for cooling. So what about the concerns that, you know, we might have? I know food have a tsunami on the Atlantic Ocean, but because it's more of a Pacific never name thing, you never know. But we will certainly have king tides, extreme tides, whatever you want to call them. So I'd love your thoughts on Jeff's question. And Jeff. Thank you.

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah, absolutely. So Seabrook is right on the Atlantic Ocean. If you drive through Seabrook, Hampton Beach, you'll see it right there. It's right on Seabrook Harbor. That big domed reactor very visible because it's a very flat, marshy area. And so studies about how sea level rise is going to affect that area show that I was just reading a study from several years ago that shows that there's no way the plant or it's very unlikely the plant would ever be fully inundated. So like that seas would rise to the point where the plant was totally marooned and completely underwater. But the tides and storm surges and storms are a much bigger concern there. I mean, that is an area that can get really pummeled by nor'easters that can affect infrastructure, white wastewater plants, roads right on the coast. And that's a concern for Seabrook, too. Now, these plants are quite armored. You know, it's not like they're going to blow over in a regular storm, but that is something that you hear come up when we talk about the cracks, you know, what's the structural integrity? People mentioned earthquakes a lot, which is not unheard of in New England to have even a minor earthquake.

Annie Ropeik:
You know, if you live five miles from Seabrook, that's going to be something that you worry about. And we should also know that there are major local concerns about the evacuation plans for. Seabrook And that they're not comprehensive enough. And just to give people a sense of what it is like to live near those plants, I mean, if you live in a certain radius, I believe it's 10 miles of Seabrook. You have the. Soon to receive iodine tablets that you can take in the event of a disaster like that's a service that the government provides. You get these calendars that people will use to show, like where you go to meet to get a bus that would take you away from the area if something terrible ever happened and what radio station it knew what to bring in your car. And, you know, it's worst case scenario, disaster planning. It's obviously not something anyone ever hopes to have to use. But it is not you know, it's not like it's never happened that we've had a nuclear accident. Even in this country. And so that's what people who live near Seabrook think about. And and the possibility looms over them all the time.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and here's an email from Mark in Exeter who says, Anyone interested in the safety of the Seabrook plant should take a hard look at the evacuation plans. As you mentioned, any for the 10 mile radius around the reactors, Mark says they are inadequate. Patently so, he says. Public safety in the plant owners falsely reassure schools and nursing homes and other vulnerable populations that there will be buses and drivers to remove students and patients in the event of release of radiation from the plant. Yet they will not disclose where the buses come from and whether there are drivers who affirm they would leave their families to drive them. Mark also says the nice calendar that see Brooks owners and emergency services teams up to send Seacoast residents is not worth the paper it's printed on. He feels like it's all false assurances and Annie that seems to be what you're referencing.

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah, I mean, it kind of gets the point again where there is only so much that these regulatory agencies and plant owners can say when people just don't trust them. They are scared that past nuclear accidents that have come through sort of malpractice or mismanagement, that those could happen here. And at a certain point, people become convinced of that. And it's a very real fear when you see that plant every day, it stays undermined. And so, you know, I think it's understandable that people would both be asking for a greater level of scrutiny and protection, but also would it would be hard to convince them that any extra level of that was enough.

Laura Knoy:
And we got an e-mail from Jonathan who says Modern nuclear plants are very safe. We shouldn't abandon a technology that has evolved a lot over the last half a century. Also, how do you plan on offsetting the ten terawatt hours of power produced every year? If it's not nuclear or renewable, it's going to increase our carbon footprint. If anything, the plant should be repaired and a second reactor installed.

Laura Knoy:
Jonathan, thank you for jumping in. And Bruce. You mentioned that there's only one new nuclear plant being built right now in Georgia and that it's gotten hugely expensive. What is the expense behind building a new nuclear plant? Obviously, it's not going to be cheap because you want all the safety installations there. But why is it so enormously expensive?

Bruce Gellerman:
Well, they're building two reactors in Georgia. They're already two existing reactors that have been there. So that's the Vogtle plant. But those two reactors, because every plant that we build is basically is unique. You know, it's custom made. It's like custom making a car. You know, you you've got to get the expertise and the plans. And then the plants shift over time as the plant goes, is stopping built. There are questions things don't work out. The public raises concerns. Regulators raise concerns. There's things that they wanted to build that they can't build that way.

Bruce Gellerman:
So it gets changed over time. They're constantly shifting. So you've got 10, you know, thousands of workers sitting there, sometimes idle for weeks, months at a time while the people figure out how to how to redesign things to accommodate different changes. And plus, we haven't we've lost the expertise, the management expertise, the infrastructure, you know, so we're not only just building unique power plants, we're building unique industry. Each time we build the power plant. So those are the reasons it's hugely expensive to build the power, a nuclear power plant. But I do want to just comment on the safety issue. You know, nuclear plants, if you look at them very objectively, measure them. So particulates, they don't give particulates, they don't have carbon. The things they that people have not died from in here in the country.

Bruce Gellerman:
We just had Three Mile Island shut off Friday. As a matter of fact, the most famous accident, the United States perhaps in the end, and nobody died from Three Mile Island.

Bruce Gellerman:
So they have produced lots of lots and lots of power safely. And that shouldn't be lost in the argument.

Laura Knoy:
Jonathan, thank you for the e-mail. Both of you mentioned the politics of this. And Bruce, to you first. How much do you think nuclear is an energy option that conservatives and liberals might see eye on, given the climate concern?

So is the question, how many hours do we have? Right.

Bruce Gellerman:
Yeah, well, you know, I you know, I'll tell you personally, I come back, I can change my mind on nuclear power three times in four minutes. It's amazing. We need energy. We're going to need more energy in the future as we electrify and decarbonise the economy nationally and globally. So where's that energy coming from? Nuclear energy is a technology. There are new ways of making nuclear energy.

Bruce Gellerman:
There is even over the horizon is fusion energy, which we haven't talked about.

Bruce Gellerman:
But, you know, so we're going to need energy from somewhere and we're going to need to reduce our energy consumption dramatically, as Annie actually said. She's absolutely right. Energy efficiency is the biggest bang for the buck. But we the answers are going to get tougher. The questions are going to get tougher, not easier.

Laura Knoy:
Do you see Annie, Republicans and Democrats, some of them coming together on nuclear power?

Annie Ropeik:
Yeah, I think it can be an equalizer in both directions. You know, I mean, it's there are people who are opposed to it because they don't like the government imposing these kinds of maintains names on them, that picking winners, winners and losers idea others who who see it as a good carbon solution and also a good economic driver. I mean, it really can go both ways. And it reminds me of on the more local governance level in New Hampshire, the biomass question. That's another one where it's just so hard to tell for sure if it truly is a good carbon solution, if it's not what the tradeoffs are. And so, you know, Bruce is right that the more we get into climate solutions, the harder these questions are going to be. I mean, this is not going to be an easy problem to solve. Like even if right now it seems like the hardest part is picking the solutions and funding the solutions. That's not going to be the hardest part. I mean, everything has tradeoffs. And nuclear is one of the biggest, you know, sort of most haunting examples of tradeoffs.

Laura Knoy:
Exibit A, right?

Annie Ropeik:
And it's been like that since before climate change was even talked about. I mean, the the waste question was punted off onto this generation, and that is what it is. You know, when these plants were built, they were seen as a good source of power, a new technology. And we said we'll figure the waste thing out later. And we are now having to figure it out. And it's going to be the same as solar panels with wind turbines. How are they going to be decommissioned? You know, we have to mine rare earth minerals to make solar panels. That's a waste question. But we have decided in the short term that these things are worth it and that they are solutions that we want. And so, you know, everything has impacts and consequences, good and bad. And it doesn't have to happen in a vacuum. And those are going to be things we have to think about going forward, because climate change is going to require these kinds of big solutions and big solutions have big impacts. And nuclear is a great example of how complicated that can be.

Laura Knoy:
And, you know, the famous Tip O'Neill said all politics is local, and so whats the local political support for Seabrook?

Annie Ropeik:
Ah, decent. I think better than in Massachusetts. You know, people are a little bit more hesitant to go hard after the plant here. We'll see what comes of this regulatory process or this administrative process that were and others, their reporters will be up by January. And, you know, I think depending on how harsh that report is, it will be really interesting to see if we see a little bit tide turning of support for against the plant and how the license might change in the future. Some still today.

Laura Knoy:
Yes. And I'm sure we'll have you back on to talk about that. Annie, thank you very much for being here. Really appreciate.

Annie Ropeik:
Thank you.

Laura Knoy:
That's Annie Ropeik, NHPR's reporter on the seacoast energy in the environment. Bruce Gellerman, wonderful to have you on the air with us today. Thank you so much.

Bruce Gellerman:
You're welcome.

Bruce Gellerman, senior reporter for WBUR are in Boston. You can look at his EarthWhile reporting on our Web site. The Exchange is a production of NHPR. Our engineers, Dan COLGAN, are senior producers Ellen GRIMM, the producers, our Christina Phillips and Jessica Hunt. Our theme music was written by Bob Lord. Laura Knoy. And I'm Laura Knoy.