Deeply troubled by FitzPatrick and Pilgrim announcements. We need their clean electricity production to continue

Several of the therapists I have visited over the years have told me that I need to stop taking too much responsibility for events that are beyond my control. It’s not always easy advice to follow even for someone who has been aware of similar advice from the Serenity Prayer for the better part of 50 years.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The most recent gut punches that have put me into a funk were the Entergy announcements that they plan to close the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant on Cape Cod (October 12) and the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego, NY. (November 2). Though I have never visited either plant and cannot name any acquaintances that live near the facilities or are employed by them, I’m deeply troubled by my awareness of the painful human effects that are an inevitable result of the announcements of the premature closures.

Part of my problem is an inflated view of my persuasive powers. I have trouble getting past the idea that there was something I could have changed if only I had worked a little harder, reached a few more people, or crafted a few more explanatory paragraphs about why closing the plants now is exactly the wrong action to take.

Going back to the second line of the Serenity Prayer, I keep telling myself that I need to have the courage to change the misunderstandings that are causing companies like Entergy to believe that they must close existing nuclear power plants.

It doesn’t make environmental sense, it doesn’t make sense for the economies of the local regions, it directly hurts a lot of hard-working people, and it doesn’t even make economic sense for the company that made the decision.

I know the last clause in the above sentence is subject to virulent dispute by Entergy and its defenders, but I’m stubbornly certain that nuclear plants can make money now and have the strong potential to make even more money in the future. Part of the path towards profitability involves firm resistance to excessive requirements that provide little or no marginal improvements in safety or security.

It probably involves rolling back existing requirements, especially in the physical security area.

I know it is considered to be risky to resist regulatory ratcheting, but nuclear plant operators must recognize that the US has an adversarial legal and regulatory system. Without firm, well-supported resistance, regulations inevitably pile up and add costs that the market will not absorb.

Regulators have a responsibility to ensure adequate protection without regard to costs, but an industry with the safety record of the US nuclear industry has already achieved adequate protection. Any additional requirements must be subjected to honest cost benefit analysis.

No matter what power sources fill in the market space left by halting production at Pilgrim (677 net MWe) and FitzPatrick (848 net MWe) there will be negative consequences for the environment.

Existing nuclear plants produce massive amounts of reliable electricity with no air or water pollution and no greenhouse gases; they do not require any rural land to be turned into new construction sites or any pipelines to be built; and there are no wells to be drilled or shale formations to be fracked.

Accepting the environmental impact of closing two moderately large nuclear power plants “for economic reasons” at a time when the federal government is still spending $6 billion or more each year in investment tax credits (ITC) to encourage low carbon fossil fuel alternatives is absurd. The ITC is just part of the costly incentive package that makes investors interested in “renewable” energy; they also qualify for accelerated depreciation, low interest loans, favored market access, renewable portfolio quotas and some state-funded incentives.

The absurdity of the economic situation is made more apparent because federal and state government have taken actions that added substantially to the cost of owning and operating emission-free nuclear plants.

Aside: I am aware of the fact that the ITC “in lieu of” a production tax credit (PTC) program that has been in place almost continuously since 2009 has officially expired under current law. I’m also aware that it has been extended several times in the past couple of years by obscure language in bills passed just before the holiday recesses. I’d say there is a better than even chance of that happening again this year. End Aside.

The pain for the 1200 or more people directly employed at the sites, for their families, and for their neighboring economies is already real. There must be a sense of betrayal among former Vermont Yankee employees that trusted their employer and faithfully accepted jobs at plants that were not too far from home. Their stress and uncertainty-filled existence will now continue for another couple of years.

In my opinion, the way that Entergy handled the FitzPatrick announcement borders on psychological torture. Entergy told investors and the press that they would be announcing their decision by the end of the month of October. As of Friday, October 30, the company had not made an announcement, so they issued an 800 number that their employees could call during the weekend to find out if there was any news about their employment status. There was no announcement during the weekend; employees received the news first thing Monday morning even though the company apparently made the decision on Friday.

For longtime Pilgrim or FitzPatrick employees, especially those who are in the large demographic group of current nuclear plant operators and maintainers older than 50, there must be a growing realization that they will have difficulty finding new jobs at anything close to their current salaries and level of responsibility. The number of displaced nuclear operational and maintenance specialists has grown quickly in the past three years as closing nuclear plants has become almost a fad among merchant power generators.

Mobility in the nuclear energy field can be somewhat more difficult than in similar industries because the qualifications earned at each of the unique plants in the US fleet are not transferrable. For a senior reactor operator who is working as a shift supervisor, regaining a similar level of qualification can take several years after moving to a new facility.

As a frequent commenter on the Save Vermont Yankee FaceBook page often laments, few companies are interested in putting someone in their late 50s or early 60s into a licensed operator training program because they will be too close to retiring when they finish.

It is never easy to move when you are established in a community and it can be especially troublesome when you are in a “sandwich” position of having responsibilities for taking care of parents and sending children to college.

I realize that the economy is never static and that jobs come and go, but electricity is a product that is not going out of style. No matter what numskulls like Jon Wellinghoff and his disciples believe or chant, reliable [baseload] power generators are vital.

Even if the facilities are a few decades old, their product — dependable electricity — is sparklingly new every second of every day. It is what allows us to live the comfortable, productive, and healthy lives we do. People that produce that valuable product shouldn’t have to be worried that their jobs will suddenly disappear.

The above comments don’t necessarily apply to the hundreds of security specialists who have been added to plant payrolls since 2001. I’m sorry to toss them under the bus, but there are way too many of them for adequate protection.

Before I close this lament, I need to remind readers that the point-of-no-return has not been reached for either plant. There is the possibility of a deus ex machina development that will change the story’s ending all the way up until the current operating license has been converted into a “possession only” license at the NRC.

If any readers know how to put together billion dollar deals, please begin performing your due diligence. (Note: It looks like some effort has already begun for FitzPatrick. Investor owned corporations might not like the fact that their actions are lending momentum to a revived push for public power.

In the meantime, people who realize that Pilgrim, FitzPatrick and all other operating nuclear power plants in the US are national assets that benefit all of us can encourage our representatives to investigate the real reasons why companies believe that merchant nuclear plants cannot make enough money. Inquiries and hearings might buy enough time to let the production inertia in the natural gas industry die off enough to expose the shrinking supply surplus.

Drilling activity began slowing more than 18 months ago; production is finally peaking. Corporations and investors that lost billions of dollars during the overproduction era are not likely to invest in new drilling activity until prices have risen more than a few dollars/MMBTU. Once they decide to move, they might have a difficult time convincing betrayed workers to return.

When gas and electricity market prices rise; the nuclear plant owners will be happy they rode the commodity cycle and did not give up just when it was ending.

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