Today we got some news that we were expecting. I don’t mean to say about Pilgrim Nuclear Station being closed by 2019 — I mean the news that some nuclear plant or another in the US was going to announce closure due to market conditions sooner or later. This sort of feeling is becoming pervasive; it’s not any sort of pall of doom, but the plain fact of the matter is that Pilgrim was only one of a number of plants today being threatened by forces that didn’t exist when these plants were built.
What forces did exist when these plants were built? Well, Pilgrim was ordered as a part of that very first breakout flood of orders for commercial nuclear plants in 1965, a year that saw seven units ordered. 1964 had seen none, and 1963 saw four commercial units ordered (one of which, Malibu, was cancelled.) So 1965 really was the spark; 1966 saw 20 ordered, and 1967 saw 31.
The New England region was, back at that time, heavily in the grip of oil fuel. This was used (in various grades or names) for electric power generation and for home heating, and was used perhaps more extensively here than anywhere else. Coal had very little play here, as compared with the rest of the nation. So, when oil prices started and kept going up, New England poured on the nuclear plant construction; it continued as clean air became more and more important in addition.
•1956: Yankee Atomic Electric plant for Rowe, Mass. ordered
•1962: Connecticut Yankee ordered
•1965: Pilgrim and Millstone ordered
•1966: Vermont Yankee ordered
•1967: Maine Yankee and Millstone 2 ordered
•1968: Seabrook announced (but not ordered)
•1972: Pilgrim 2 and 3, Seabrook 1 and 2, Millstone 3 ordered
•1974: Montague 1 and 2, and New England 1 and 2 ordered
In about 1980, Boston Edison was using a mixture of 70% oil and 30% nuclear energy to generate electricity. It said at that time that between 1970 and 1980 the cost of the oil it was burning had increased 1500% — rising from about $2.22 per barrel to over $35 per barrel. This caused Boston Edison (and as you can see a number of other utilities) to begin a rush of ordering of nuclear plants at first slowly in the end of the 60’s, and then heavily in the first few years of the 1970’s as the oil price trend became very clear.
Pilgrim by itself made up for about 7 million barrels of oil per year, saving the company’s customers about $115 million per year (1981 numbers.) It’s quite easy to see why the large nuclear build was put on up in New England.
Of course, it didn’t all pan out. If one looks at Seabrook station today, the plant for all the world looks like a two unit nuclear plant. But only one unit is complete and working. Of the units listed earlier, Pilgrim 2 and 3, Seabrook 2, Montague 1 and 2 and New England 1 and 2 were never completed. In fact, the last two projects never started real construction. The reasons for this are many, but I’m getting to a point here.
Let’s take a look at a key passage from the informative booklet “About: Pilgrim Station,” published by Boston Edison in 1981:
“The New England Region relies more heavily on imported oil for its energy needs than any other part of the country. Its uncertainty in both cost and availability mandates that this dependence be greatly reduced. Thus, currently, nuclear power is the only option for the foreseeable future and represents the most economical, safe and readily available opportunity to reduce our reliance on expensive foreign oil.”
Now, I want you to read this again, but this time substitute “natural gas’ for “imported oil” or “foreign oil.” Because this is what New England is looking at — it’s looking at giving up its most reliable, lowest carbon base load power and becoming dependent upon a single fuel. In the past that was oil; now it will be natural gas. The implications are obvious — if (when, actually) natural gas prices go back up there will be NO escape.
(Item: At one time, a certain utility in Kansas was told by its natural gas supplier that there would be a sudden price increase and reducing availability scaled through the future as gas was then re-prioritized for home use. The response? It ordered a nuclear power plant– Wolf Creek. Think about this for a moment.)
Really what’s happening here is that Entergy is losing about $40 million a year on Pilgrim, and since it’s facing buying fuel next year for a 2017 outage and is also facing increased regulatory oversight and possible equipment backfit / modification implications, it’s decided to go ahead and announce a final termination for plant operation. This termination (not later than 2019) IS FLEXIBLE and may be moved up to the 2017 outage, or even sooner, the company says.
As I started out by saying, this was expected. Several plants are known to be “on the block.” Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee have been the first to shut down for similar circumstances, and much as I hate to say it, it’s almost certain this trend is not yet over.