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Low Energy Prices Force More Northeast Nuclear Power Plants To Shut Down


The closing of two nuclear power plants, one in Massachusetts, another in upstate New York, is raising questions about the future of nuclear power and how energy is priced in this country. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: Plants like FitzPatrick, on the shore of Lake Ontario near Syracuse, are the workhorses of the grid. Nuclear plants are powerful and reliable in the frigid polar vortex when natural gas and coal can go cold and in the heat of summer when wind dies down. But, Chris Gadomski of Bloomberg New Energy Finance says in deregulated electricity markets, nuclear isn't paid more for that reliability.

CHRIS GADOMSKI: To have a technology that can be dispatchable any time of day that's carbon-free is a premium type of electricity, and the nuclear power industry is not being compensated adequately for that.

SOMMERSTEIN: This is one of the reasons four nuclear plants in the Northeast are going offline in five years. The biggest reason, though, is cheap natural gas from the nearby Marcellus Shale driving down prices. FitzPatrick nuclear has lost $60 million bidding against electricity plants powered by natural gas.

KEN BURDICK: Natural gas is making it very rough for the nuclear plants, not just in our towns, in our county, but throughout the United States. This is just getting tougher and tougher.

SOMMERSTEIN: Ken Burdick is supervisor of the town of Scriba, where FitzPatrick and two other nuclear reactors are located. People around here pay close attention to energy markets. So when FitzPatrick's owner, Entergy, announced 615 people would lose their jobs, it wasn't a surprise, but it hurt all the same.

BURDICK: It's almost a nightmare. It's like a punch in the guts when something like this happens.

SOMMERSTEIN: At Scriba Meats, just down the road from the FitzPatrick nuclear plant, owner Rebecca Swenszkowski's grinding up their famous bacon burger.

REBECCA SWENSZKOWSKI: It's got 4 pounds of bacon and 10 pounds of beef.

SOMMERSTEIN: The nuclear workers make good money, she says. The closing will cost the region $75 million in payroll alone. They buy lunch and dinner here and luxuries, too. Exotic game has become a big seller.

SWENSZKOWSKI: We got in the turtle, the alligator, the rattlesnake.

SOMMERSTEIN: One thin rattlesnake fillet, by the way, 14 bucks. Swenszkowski says everyone's going to feel the economic pain.

SWENSZKOWSKI: The trickle-down effect between our business, other businesses, people getting laid off, they're going to have to probably sell their houses, move away.

SOMMERSTEIN: Nuclear is having better luck in other parts of the country. Five new reactors are set to go online by 2020, all in the southeast, resulting in a 3,500 megawatt net increase in nuclear power nationwide. Allison Macfarlane, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says that's important because nuclear doesn't contribute to climate change.

ALLISON MACFARLANE: Nuclear in the United States provides almost 20 percent of our electricity supply, and that's carbon-free.

SOMMERSTEIN: Environmentalists are divided over whether to embrace nuclear as a solution to climate change. Major groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace say closing nuclear plants is good because they're too dangerous and divert money from renewables like wind and solar. And Congress still hasn't dealt with how to store nuclear waste long-term. In the towns around the FitzPatrick nuclear plant, the questions are more concrete but no easier to answer. Sean Bruno, superintendent of the nearby Mexico school district, says the plants' taxes pay almost a quarter of his budget.

SEAN BRUNO: How do we help our families, first of all? How do we help our community? And obviously, I have a fiduciary responsibility to look out for the district.

SOMMERSTEIN: New York officials had hoped to convince Entergy to change its mind, but those talks broke off. Entergy officially notified federal regulators it'll shut down the plant starting late next year. Its CEO told investors natural gas is just too cheap, and the company's saving up to $275 million with the closure. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Canton, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.