Nuclear Plants Grapple With Early 'Lights Out'

The premature closing of power plants raises new environmental and cost issues.

When the nation's longest-running nuclear-power plant shut down here this summer, few Michiganders noticed. Not one light bulb even flickered.

But the closing of the "big blue ball" that stands quietly amid the conifers here portends big changes coming in America's nuclear-power industry.

Like the Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant, many of the nation's plants are simply getting old - edging up against their 20- or 30-year life span. But more than that, new competition - brought on by states deregulating their power industries - is forcing some less-efficient plants into early retirement.

Deregulation "is like the sword hanging over your head," says Tony Nericilio, spokesman for the Haddam Neck power plant in Haddam, Conn., which was recently slated for closure. Like the Big Rock plant, it was shuttered even though its license allows it to put out power for several more years.

More plants moving toward shutdown raises the specter of billions of dollars in cleanup and dismantling costs, as well as the loss of some of the thousands of nuclear-power jobs. The nation also continues to grapple with where to store the growing amount of nuclear waste, which will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

Safety and cost concerns grow

But trying to keep older plants running cheaply amid what's expected to be fierce competition also has some watchdogs worried.

"If there is greater competitive pressure ... then there is a concern that cost-cutting measures would potentially impact health and safety," says Robert Wood, a senior financial analyst at the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

He estimates that as many as 30 US nuclear plants "are vulnerable to being noncompetitive" - meaning they may either be shut down or could continue to operate on a tighter budget.

But shutting the plants is an expensive option. The cost of fully dismantling the Fort St. Vrain plant in Platteville, Colo., for instance, is expected to be some $333 million.

By law, companies with nuclear plants have had to collect money all along from ratepayers to decommission their plants.

So if a plant shuts down before the end of its operating life, there is concern that there won't be enough money collected to decommission that plant.

Although states with prematurely retired nuclear plants have required utility companies to continue collecting decommissioning costs from ratepayers even after the plant closes, the NRC is concerned the practice may not be uniformly adopted by each state.

To shut or not

One thing keeping utility companies from shutting down every power plant that isn't an instant profit center is that they will still have to keep up with demand. On a hot July day this summer, Michigan utility companies came "within a whisker" of maxing out all the power sources available to the state.

But antinuclear activists are happy to predict that deregulation will help put some plants out of business.

Mary Sinclair, co-chair of Don't Waste Michigan, says customers may shy away from buying power from companies with nuclear plants because of added long-term costs of cleaning up the sites.

This may be true especially when consumers realize that, as taxpayers, they will have to pay for the US Department of Energy's obligation to store the high-level radioactive waste that the plants produce.

Originally, deregulation was conceived to try to keep consumer energy bills down. And most states are moving toward ridding their power industries of monopolies. Three states have done so thus far. Under the new plans, customers will be able to choose which plant they get their power from - a nuclear facility, or a coal-burning plant, or some other source.

Originally, most states set up the monopolies to avoid the chaos of a market in which each house had dozens of separate power lines running to it for dozens of competing utility companies.

Deregulation keeps the existing distribution system in place - from big power lines down to the small wires going to a house. But it sets up new accounting systems to give customers the ability to shop around for power sources. "With deregulation, companies will offer you a free toaster or bird feeder to get you to buy their power, just like phone companies do now," says Charlie MacInnis, spokesman for Consumers Energy, which owns the Big Rock Point plant.

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