Case Study

The Future of Nuclear in Connecticut

Abstract

Bryan Garcia, the President and CEO of the Connecticut Green Bank, had a big decision to make. Garcia is a member of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change (GC3), a group charged with creating a comprehensive climate strategy for the State of Connecticut. As of September 2016, Garcia remained undecided about a key element of that strategy – nuclear power plants. There were strong proponents and opponents of nuclear energy on the GC3 and Garcia was weighing each side’s arguments before announcing his own position.

Connecticut had a long history of considering climate change in state policy. As part of this tradition, Connecticut’s governor Dannel Malloy established the GC3 on Earth Day 2015 to examine the effectiveness of existing policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and identify new strategies. Connecticut’s government had already set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 2001 levels by 2050. The GC3 had been tasked to develop interim statewide greenhouse gas reduction targets for years between 2020 and 2050 and identify short- and long-term statewide strategies to achieve the necessary reductions. The governor chose the 15 members of the GC3 from state agencies, quasi-state agencies, business, and nonprofits.

The GC3 recommendations would have to take into account Connecticut’s changing energy profile. Between 1996 and 2015, natural gas largely replaced the dirtier fossil fuels coal and oil for electricity generation to provide almost half of the state’s electricity and one-third of the its energy (including for transportation and home heating). But the one constant had been the state’s nuclear power, which supplied more than one-fifth of Connecticut’s energy needs. The nuclear power all came from a massive plant situated near New London, CT called Millstone. The facility included two reactors that produced almost half of the electricity generated in Connecticut and supplied about 15% of the power required for the New England regional grid. The operating licenses for the two reactors were set to expire in 2035 and 2045, making the issue extremely salient for the GC3.

The GC3 remained divided as to what to do about Millstone. On the one hand, nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases while in operation, therefore continuing to use nuclear energy—or even increasing its use—would greatly facilitate meeting the 2050 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. Since natural gas use generates substantial greenhouse gases in its own right, the state needs to drastically phase down natural gas by 2050, putting further pressure on keeping or expanding nuclear.

On the other hand, there are ongoing health and safety, environment, and security concerns about nuclear power, as well as questions of short- and long-term financial viability.  For these reasons, one of the other two nuclear plants in New England had already announced its early closure in 2019.

With compelling arguments on both sides of the nuclear issue, Garcia had his work cut out for him. Garcia noted about natural gas, “If you're extending the infrastructure, you're building something into the system that will be around for a long time.” To provide insight into the long term consequences of their actions, the GC3’s data and metrics working group was building models that would both project Connecticut’s energy needs and the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions. Time to make a decision was getting short. The governor expected the GC3 to unveil its strategy, including a recommendation about Millstone, by early 2017.