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Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Waterford.

As nuclear power plant after nuclear power plant in New England closes or announces a closing date, there’s an uncertain future for Connecticut’s only operating plant, the Millstone facility in Waterford.

The plant’s owner, Dominion Energy, stated in June that it may choose to exit the New England market “for economic reasons” and started a “strategic review” to decide whether to continue operating the plant, which sits next to Long Island Sound on about 500 acres of land about 3 miles southwest of New London and 40 miles southeast of Hartford. The review began after the state legislature didn’t pass a bill this year that would have maintained or boosted Millstone’s profitability.

With apparent concern about a possible Millstone shutdown, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy ordered the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on July 25 to assess by next February “the current and projected economic viability for the continued operation” of the nuclear plant. Dominion Energy CEO Paul Koonce responded that “time for a study without action has passed,” and “the prospects for continued operation of Millstone diminish” unless action is taken this year to ensure the plant’s viability.

The two sides of the debate have made their voices loud and clear. Millstone’s proponents argue that the power plant, which opened in 1970 and was named for the former granite quarry that produced millstones where the plant now sits, is vital to the energy future of Connecticut and New England. Opponents of legislative action to help Millstone contend it will stifle the growth of renewable energy in the state and would mean higher prices for electric ratepayers.

The voices of safety advocates, however, have largely gone unheard. They fear that the facility’s spent-fuel pools and security issues — like at other nuclear plants — endanger the lives, the land and the water for many miles outside the plant.

Low natural gas prices and depressed wholesale electricity prices have made it difficult for New England nuclear plants to remain competitive in recent years, and only two, Millstone and New Hampshire’s Seabrook, are operating and haven’t announced a closure date. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is scheduled to close in May 2019; Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vermont, closed in 2014; Haddam Neck in Haddam shut down in 1996 for safety and economic reasons; Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Maine, stopped operating in 1996 after safety problems became too expensive to correct; and Yankee Rowe in Rowe, Massachusetts, shut down in 1992 after safety and economic problems.

Purchased by Dominion Energy from Northeast Utilities for about $1.3 billion in cash in 2000, Millstone produces 2,100 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 2.1 million homes. None or very little of the plant’s electricity, however, is sold directly to Connecticut, Dominion Energy spokesman Kenneth Holt says. The plant’s electricity is sold in the futures market, where third parties buy it and then resell the power to electric utilities.

Millstone is responsible for about $1.6 billion in economic impact in Connecticut each year, according to a 2016 analysis by Chmura, a consultant contracted by Dominion. The facility employs about 1,100 full-time workers and 400 full-time contractors, Holt says. It has two operating nuclear reactors, Units 2 and 3. During month-long refueling outages, which occur every 18 months on each reactor, 800-1,000 additional workers are brought in. A third reactor, Unit 1, was permanently shut down by Northeast Utilities in 1998.

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All three units were shut down in the 1990s (Unit 2 closed for three years) to address safety issues, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “would not allow them to restart until those concerns were adequately addressed,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan says.

Today, however, Millstone “is safer than the average nuclear power plant,” says nuclear engineer David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear safety watchdog group.

“Units 2 and 3 were shut down from 1996 through 1998, while an army of workers fixed literally dozens of safety shortcomings,” Lochbaum says. “Few plants have experienced such attitude-adjustment outages. Millstone is better off having those problems in its rear-view mirror instead of on the road ahead.”

Millstone is also safer because it is owned and operated by Dominion Energy, Lochbaum says. “Dominion has consistently outpaced its peers. It couples a very aggressive effort to find problems with a very effective effort at solving problems the first time.”

Despite his belief that Millstone is safer than many other plants, Lochbaum says the spent-fuel pools at Millstone and other nuclear plants are an extreme danger because of the possibility of a fire, self-ignition or a terrorist attack. Spent-fuel rods in the pools need to be cooled by water, but if the water level drops and the rods are exposed, a fire or explosion could result.

“It is essentially the 21st century’s ‘harms’ race,” Lochbaum says. “Will we get the spent-fuel pool inventories thinned down before al-Qaida, ISIS, a Timothy McVeigh type or a new player exploits this huge vulnerability and ruins the lives of thousands of Americans?”

Safety advocates have long maintained that nuclear plants’ pools are too densely packed with spent fuel — a situation that could trigger a fire and a release of radiation for many miles outside plants. The safety advocates say the fuel needs to be removed from the pools and put in safer concrete structures called dry casks. Such a process, they say, is happening too slowly at nuclear plants across the country.

Millstone has three spent-fuel pools — one for each reactor. The NRC will not say, “for security reasons,” the amounts of spent fuel in the pools or in dry casks — or the amounts at other plants, NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci says. The NRC believes spent-fuel pools and dry casks “provide adequate protection for public health and safety and the environment,” she says.

Fuel pools are “robust structures” of reinforced concrete several feet thick, they have steel liners and the water inside is about 40 feet deep, shielding the radiation and cooling the spent-fuel rods, Screnci says. The agency is “confident U.S. spent fuel is safely and securely stored,” she says.

About 16 years ago, a Long Island environmental group — opposed to Millstone’s plan to more than double Unit 3’s spent-fuel-pool capacity — hired Gordon Thompson, the executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, to assess the consequences of an accident.

Thompson, a mechanical engineer who consulted for the U.S. Department of Energy, determined that the amount of radioactive material discharged from Unit 3’s pool would be five times greater than the amount discharged during the world’s worst nuclear accident at Ukraine’s Chernobyl plant in 1986. The number of deaths from the Chernobyl accident is still uncertain, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to more than 125,000. Ukraine’s Health Ministry said about 3.5 million people became ill because of the accident.

If all the radioactive waste that was in Unit 3’s spent-fuel pool in the early 2000s was discharged in typical weather conditions during an accident, 46,598 square miles of land would be uninhabitable for at least 30 years, and some land uninhabitable for hundreds of years, Thompson said. Connecticut covers about 5,500 square miles.

After the world’s second-worst nuclear accident — when an earthquake and tsunami struck the six reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 — the NRC ordered Millstone and other nuclear plants to take extra safety steps. Multiple nuclear meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima plant, releasing radiation that forced about 200,000 people to evacuate and making about 425 square miles of land uninhabitable.

In response, the NRC required plants “to improve the ability of operators to monitor the water level in spent-fuel pools,” Screnci says. “We also required plants to develop new strategies for adding water to these pools to keep them cool, even under the conditions that might exist following an extreme natural event like a severe earthquake or flood.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists doesn’t believe enough was done. In a report last year by its senior scientist, Edwin Lyman, the group said the NRC “has failed to learn the lessons of Fukushima” and made insufficient progress in improving U.S. nuclear power safety.

The report says that, after the Fukushima disaster, an NRC task force gave safety recommendations that would have established a strong foundation for reducing the likelihood of such a disaster in the U.S., but the NRC rejected, only partially accepted or weakened most of the recommendations. Lyman says the agency abdicated its responsibility as the nation’s nuclear watchdog by allowing the nuclear power industry to rely on voluntary guidelines that are unenforceable.

The main response by the NRC and the nuclear industry to the Fukushima accident, the report says, was a program intended to provide extra backup emergency equipment to cool reactors and spent-fuel pools during a prolonged power loss. The industry, however, bought less-expensive backup equipment before the NRC developed program guidelines, and the equipment may not withstand a severe accident, the report says.

In response to Lyman’s report, NRC spokesman Sheehan says the task force developed numerous recommendations, and “those determined to have the greatest impact in terms of enhancing the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants were approved for implementation.” Recommendations approved for implementation included fresh evaluations of flooding and seismic risk for plants, better instrumentation to monitor spent-fuel pool water levels, and the acquisition of portable pumps and generators that could be used to keep coolant flowing to reactors and spent-fuel pools if off-site and on-site power is lost.

Another safety issue related to spent-fuel-pool cooling has quietly arisen in recent years. Some scientists and safety advocates point out that a bomb exploded above North America could create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could shut down the electric grid which powers the pumps used to cool spent-fuel pools. Inability to cool the densely packed pools could cause a fire that could spew radiation from the pools, killing or poisoning many and making large stretches of land uninhabitable for decades.

“If North Korea attacks the United States with a nuclear bomb detonated in the upper atmosphere, it could cause a blackout in Connecticut and the eastern U.S. resulting in long-term loss of electric power,” says Thomas Popik, the chairman of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a nonprofit scientific research group.

Scientists also say that such a scenario could happen without a bomb. Severe solar storms, which occur once every few decades, could also shut down the grid.

Popik told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year the probability of a severe solar storm during one’s lifetime is about 50 percent. Popik shares the concerns of others that our current nuclear-power infrastructure is not equipped to handle a prolonged power loss, and that a severe solar storm is likely to result in disaster. 

“The likely outcomes include failure of multiple infrastructures critical to the basic function of modern society,” Popik told the independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil, further warning of starvation, civil unrest and deaths.

The NRC, Screnci says, “is aware of the potential significance of EMP to the nation’s critical infrastructure” and “continues to conclude that nuclear power plants can safely shut down following an EMP event.”

Holt, the Dominion Energy spokesman, says: “I can’t speak to the possibility of an EMP, but I can tell you that we have several layers of protection for any issue that could potentially impact safety at Millstone.”

The facility, he says, has “a well-trained workforce, primary systems that provide protection, backup systems in case those fail and, finally, equipment designed to keep the fuel covered and cool if there is an event that is beyond what the plant was originally designed for.”

Popik says immediate action and investment is needed to harden the nation’s electrical-power infrastructure from EMP risks and ensure that spent-fuel pools have reliable backup cooling systems. Current systems are designed to operate for only a few days, so backup systems that provide long-term cooling should be required, he says.

An August 2013 report about the terrorist threat to U.S. nuclear plants — written by the University of Texas’ Nuclear Proliferation Project — listed Millstone among the 11 most at-risk plants in the nation, particularly because of its vulnerability to attacks from the sea.

The study is correct, and the federal government’s failure to make it less vulnerable is wrong, says Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Connecticut residents, he says, noticed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that the U.S. Navy base in Groton deployed buoys and barriers in the waters around nuclear submarines at dock, but the nearby Millstone plant did not have similar waterborne barriers protecting its intake structures and other vulnerable seaside parts. Lochbaum says a government agency offered to pay for such protection, but the NRC said it wasn’t needed.

“It’s hard to figure why the federal government would protect nuclear submarines from waterborne assaults but not protect coastal nuclear power plants,” he says. 

Sheehan says the Coast Guard has regulations prohibiting vessels from entering waters and lands near Millstone, and the plant’s operators have plans and procedures on how to cope with a loss of cooling water. 

Dominion’s Holt says the nuclear energy industry “is one of the nation’s safest industries,” and nuclear power plants are protected by “robust physical defenses and security forces with rigorous training.”

Every U.S. nuclear plant “is equipped with extensive security measures to protect the facility from intruders and to protect the public from the possibility of exposure to radioactive releases caused by acts of sabotage,” he says.

With safety advocates pointing out such outstanding safety and security concerns, should they be calling for the shutdown of Millstone and other operating nuclear plants?

“Shutting down all the nuclear plants in the U.S. — nearly all have overcrowded spent-fuel pools at elevated risk — incurs a very real consequence,” Lochbaum says. “Twenty percent of our electricity comes from nuclear power plants. Shutting them down would require boosted generation by fossil-fired plants with adverse climate-change consequences. So, it’s a nuclear harms race where the Union of Concerned Scientists and others are racing to rectify the elevated risk before it someday causes a disaster.”

Economic reasons — not safety concerns — appear to be the most likely reasons why Dominion Energy might soon pull the plug on Millstone. If that occurs, how will Connecticut fulfill its energy needs?

Vermont increased its use of natural gas when the Vermont Yankee plant closed. Malloy, however, cited a lack of adequate natural gas pipeline capacity in New England when he, in July, ordered the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to assess the “continued operation” of Millstone. The findings of the report are expected by February 2018.

Lochbaum says much depends on the timing of a closure announcement. A closure announced years in advance — like those announced earlier this year by operators of the Indian Point plant in New York and the Diablo Canyon plant in California — gives a state’s public service commission, the power grid system operator and power producers time to figure out an optimal plan. The options include construction of new electrical generators, increased output from existing producers and purchasing power from neighboring grid systems, he says. 

When closure is announced with less notice, the options “are pretty much the same but how they are phased in changes,” Lochbaum says. “A short-notice closure might see more power purchased from other grid systems until new generators can be built and placed in operation.”