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Greens applaud exclusion of nuclear from Mass. clean energy subsidy

Massachusetts anti-nuclear activists are rejoicing over the exclusion of Entergy Corp.'s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station from new clean energy subsidies that could have extended the facility's operations beyond its slated 2019 retirement.

Under new clean air regulations unveiled Aug. 11 by Massachusetts officials, Pilgrim and other nuclear facilities in the ISO New England and adjacent markets are excluded from receiving clean energy credits pursuant to restrictions that limit eligibility to emission-free generators than came online starting in 2011. The roughly 685-MW nuclear plant in Plymouth, Mass., began its operations in 1972.

Mary Lampert, the director of Pilgrim Watch who had remained skeptical of Entergy's intentions to shutter Pilgrim by June 2019, was relieved that the final regulations exclude existing nuclear plants. In an interview, Lampert predicted the clean energy credits would have allowed Pilgrim to "go the route of" Exelon Corp.'s James A. FitzPatrick nuclear plant in New York and become economically viable once again.

Similar to Pilgrim's current situation, FitzPatrick could not compete in a deregulated market awash with cheap natural gas supplies and therefore was set to close under Entergy ownership. But New York's state government came to the rescue by providing a subsidy for upstate nuclear plants based on emissions avoided by their generation. Also as part of the New York subsidy deal, Exelon acquired FitzPatrick in March to keep the facility running.

Without a similar subsidy giving Pilgrim a new lease on life, Lampert said the plant's fate is now sealed.

"We made a commitment to serve as a capacity resource for the region until May 31, 2019. Our plans remain unchanged," Entergy spokesman Patrick O'Brien said in a statement. "We are focused on safe and reliable operation and will cease operations of Pilgrim Station no later than June 1, 2019."

While Entergy did not lobby the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, to consider extending clean energy credits to existing nuclear plants, Exelon and fellow nuclear operators Dominion Energy Inc. and NextEra Energy Inc. did.

Dominion operates the Millstone nuclear plant in neighboring Connecticut, and NextEra is the operator of Seabrook nuclear plant, located right across the Massachusetts state line in New Hampshire.

Seabrook is waiting on regulators to rule on its proposal to renew its operating license beyond 2030. Dominion has been seeking a power supply contract from Connecticut for Millstone, which is committed to supplying power through May 2022. However, Dominion warned state officials in July that the time for a study on whether the plant needs out-of-market financial support has passed given the need for immediate action.

Diane Turco, director of Cape Downwinders, said in an interview that Entergy's decision not to submit testimony to the DEP is an indication of "how bad Pilgrim is." In September 2015, Pilgrim came under increased regulatory scrutiny following several inspections by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is still operating under the lowest safety rating allowed by the NRC. "Their goal was to arrest declining performance and that has not happened," said Turco. "Pilgrim needs to be shut down for public safety."

On Aug. 2, the NRC issued an action letter outlining activities to improve performance at the plant, and Entergy has submitted a recovery plan detailing those planned actions. The NRC will independently verify any progress made through quarterly follow-up inspections.