The Pilgrim nuclear reactor building. Photo by Robin Lubbock for WBUR

The Pilgrim nuclear reactor building. Photo by Robin Lubbock for WBUR

As Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant stopped production in Vernon, Vermont, and as Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts moves to close later this year, what is the future of nuclear power in our region?

Soon New England will only have Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant operating in New Hampshire and Millstone Nuclear Power Plant operating in Connecticut, so what does this mean for our energy mix and for ratepayers in our region?

We invited Jacopo Buongiorno, a Professor and the Associate Department Head of MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Department, to discuss what’s next for our region.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

John Dankosky: Can you break down the role that nuclear energy currently plays in New England’s overall energy makeup?

Jacopo Buongiorno: Well let me start by zooming out and actually telling you what the role of nuclear is for the United States as a whole. It currently provides about 20 percent of our electricity mix and over 50 percent of our zero carbon or low carbon electricity. So the role of nuclear is already really big in the New England region is similar to the national situation. The nuclear power plants that you mentioned in your brief introduction are generally struggling in the U.S. because of competitive pressure from alternative energy sources. In particular, natural gas which is very cheap, but nuclear has a role to play, already plays an important role, and so there is an incentive in trying to maintain the operation of these nuclear power plants.

How are states looking at nuclear as a renewable source?

So nuclear doesn’t qualify. I guess, as a renewable source in the same way that solar and wind do. However, when nuclear power plants shut down and we’ve had an example in New England with Vermont Yankee, the carbon emissions for those states typically go up, not to mention the fact that a lot of jobs from people working at these plants are lost. So based on analysis that we did at MIT is part of a study that lasted about two and a half years on the present and future prospects of nuclear energy, we found that continuing the operation of nuclear power plants is actually the lowest cost approach to avoiding any increase in emissions.

So what you’re saying is that even if nuclear power isn’t considered a “renewable energy source” like wind or solar would be, that when a nuclear plant goes away a state’s overall emissions will then go up?

That’s absolutely correct. And while it is not defined as renewable it is a zero carbon energy source and what is perhaps even more important it’s a dispatchable energy source. In other words, you can generate electricity when you need it and that’s important based on old analysis and modeling that people, including our team, had done when you’re trying to fill the gaps created by the intermittency or variability if you wish of solar and wind. So bottom line, we think that it’s a combination of solar, wind and nuclear that will actually give the most effective and lowest cost path towards decarbonization of our energy sector.

But I want to say the debate about whether nuclear is renewable or not, I find it not particularly satisfactory. The objective here is to decarbonize our energy sector and we should not get stuck on definitions or names. What’s important, what again all our sort of scholarly work suggests, is that what’s important is to have a generation mix of both variables, solar and wind, as well as dispatchable, or firm or controllable, energy sources such as nuclear that drive down the emissions in the power sector.

In Vernon, Vermont where Vermont Yankee has produced power for so many years, there is a question of what will happen to that community after the power plant is completely shut down and decommissioned. The places where this energy is made, these power plants have provided an awful lot of jobs and now you’re going to have something there that won’t be used for what it’s been used for. It won’t provide the economic benefit and people feel in many cases like in this town that they’ve kind of been left behind. What is your thought about what we do with the communities where nuclear power plants have closed?

Well, this is the other aspect: what is the impact of shutting down these plants not only on the energy mix. We talk about carbon emissions and so on but the very real impact on the local communities that have relied for decades on these plants to provide, as you said, jobs and taxes and all of that. I’m not a politician I can’t really comment on what to do to help these communities but for sure it’s a big blow. The value of these plants is broad and the economic value is certainly important.

With the Seabrook Nuclear Plant in New Hampshire, Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut set to be the only nuclear power stations in our entire region. What do we as ratepayers in this region do to subsidize them to make sure that they’re still running because if as you said earlier there is this pressure from natural gas? If there’s this pressure from renewables and a desire to move more of our energy mix toward truly renewable sources of energy, what do you do to make sure these power plants continue to operate?

Generally speaking, effectively a small subsidy which in places like New Jersey, New York, and Illinois is being called a zero emission credit of between $10 and $15 per megawatt hour is sufficient to ensure that these plants are profitable and they can continue to operate. This figure that I just gave you, let’s say between $10 and $15, $10 and $17 per megawatt hour is actually a small price to pay if compared to the rate hike that one would experience by shutting down nuclear power plants or replacing them with a mix for a fixed amount of carbon emissions. So that’s a fairly straightforward calculation and it shows that the extension of these nuclear plants is cost effective.

I want to talk about the future of nuclear power. It’s something that you study very closely. I’m wondering how you view that balance where new technology and nuclear power is or could be in the next couple of years and whether or not we might be thinking about that as opposed to retrofitting and investing in the existing infrastructure that we have right now.

You bring up a very important point. I’m a firm believer in the so-called ‘all of the above strategy’. In other words, I think we need a portfolio or a range of low carbon technologies that will take us to the objective which is to decarbonize the power sector. That portfolio should include reasonable retrofits to existing nuclear power plants. Big investments in solar wind and storage. And as you correctly mentioned also an investment in new nuclear technologies.

The plants that we operate in the U.S. are nominally old. They’re certainly old designs and the technology has not stopped evolving 30, 40 years ago when we built these plants. And so there are new nuclear reactor, nuclear power plant technologies that we should definitely pay attention to some of which by the way have been developed in the U.S. and have very interesting for example safety profile or potential for better economics, not to mention the possibility of generating other energy products, not just electricity which remains the backbone of our strategy towards decarbonization. So I’m personally not just interested, but professionally I am excited about the prospects of new nuclear technology going forward.

This is an edited interview from the February 28, 2019 episode of NEXT. You can listen to the entire show right nowFind out when NEXT airs throughout all of New England.