PLYMOUTH — Perched on the eastern shore of this seaside community, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is a sprawling complex of sand-colored buildings completed during Richard Nixon’s first term. Above its main entrance, a sign proclaims, “Pilgrim: Our plant. Our Performance. Our Future.”
That may seem a bold statement for one of the nation’s oldest nuclear plants. Over the past year, Pilgrim has struggled with unplanned outages, attracted increased scrutiny from federal regulators, and come under the same economic pressures that are shuttering nuclear plants across the country, including Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt.
But analysts, regulators, and power industry officials, including Pilgrim’s owners, say the facility is likely to escape the fate of Vermont Yankee and other aging nuclear plants and keep operating for years to come.
Ironically, Pilgrim is benefiting from the competitive forces driving so many other nuclear plants out of business, namely cheap natural gas. New England’s increasing reliance on natural gas for both heating and electricity has left Pilgrim as one of the few alternatives to keep generating power, should, for example, supply disruptions knock out gas-fired plants.
Pilgrim already has filled that role during peak demand periods that have led to natural gas shortages because of the region’s insufficient pipeline capacity, according to ISO New England, the regional power grid operator. And that role will become more important in the next few years, as expected coal and nuclear plant retirements strip the power system of nearly 4,000 megawatts of generation — about an eighth of its current capacity — by the summer of 2017.
“The Pilgrim generator, like the other non-natural gas-fired generators in the region, provides us with an amount of fuel diversity here so that we’re not just totally reliant on natural gas at any single point in time,” said Stephen J. Rourke, vice president of system planning at ISO New England.
The fortunes of Pilgrim have changed dramatically since earlier this year, said Julien Dumoulin-Smith, an analyst at UBS Investment Research. In February, UBS warned that Pilgrim was potentially at risk of being closed by its owner, Entergy Corp. of New Orleans. But the series of nuclear and coal plant retirements expected over the next few years will keep Pilgrim in business, Dumoulin-Smith said.
“It was poised to lose money and it was poised to retire,” he said, but now “things are turning sharply.”
Entergy’s faith in the viability of Pilgrim is evident at the 41-year-old plant. After winning a 20-year extension of Pilgrim’s license in 2012, Entergy has invested heavily to upgrade the facility. Among the biggest projects — estimated at tens of millions of dollars by UBS — is the construction of an area that will hold 360,000-pound casks of concrete and steel to store spent radioactive fuel rods.
Pilgrim hasn’t needed the casks until now because the 40-foot-deep pool of water where spent fuel rods have been stored is nearing capacity. Rods that have been decaying for at least five years will be moved to the new casks. The first transfers are expected to begin in October.
In addition, Entergy has spent money to implement required safety modifications at Pilgrim and its other nuclear plants as a result of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan, where radiation leaked after a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Pilgrim and Fukushima use similar reactor technology.
Entergy, which also owns Vermont Yankee, says it is well aware of the challenges that lay ahead for Pilgrim, particularly the competition with natural gas. Natural gas generates more than half the electricity in New England, compared with less than one-third for nuclear.
Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, said Pilgrim’s 680-megawatt reactor is slightly bigger, and therefore more efficient, than Vermont Yankee’s. In addition, the plant’s proximity to a large energy market like Boston makes its power more attractive because of the larger demand.
“We have no plans to close Pilgrim at this time,” Mohl said.
Originally constructed for Boston Edison Co. by Bechtel Power, Pilgrim has long been controversial, with community members regularly asking regulators to shut the facility down. At one point, the plant owners considered expanding to include a second reactor, but those plans were scrapped in 1981. A few years later, Pilgrim landed on a Nuclear Regulatory Commission list of the worst-managed plants, leading to numerous reviews and leadership changes.
Today, the plant is better managed, but both Plymouth residents and energy specialists question whether Pilgrim is necessary, given the risks associated with nuclear energy.
The plant’s generation is such a small part of New England’s power market that “nobody really depends on this energy,” said Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner and now an adjunct professor teaching about nuclear power and public policy at Vermont Law School.
Mary Lampert, executive director of the grass-roots organization Pilgrim Watch, said she believes the Plymouth plant is losing millions of dollars, and worries that could lead Pilgrim’s executives to scrimp on maintenance or staff. In November, a union that represents Pilgrim workers said it had received notice from Entergy about plans to lay off a handful of employees.
“The reactor is old,” she said, “It’s likely they are going to be facing more expenses as parts get older.”
While Entergy says the plant is economically viable, Pilgrim has faced other issues this year that have affected its operations. The plant experienced several significant unplanned shutdowns, which has led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to downgrade Pilgrim’s performance status.
The plant’s status is expected to be downgraded further at the end of the year, when the NRC will order closer monitoring of operations for at least the next year.
“We’ll now be doing more frequent inspections there and we’ll have a higher level of engagement with plant management,” said agency spokesman Neil Sheehan, adding that six other reactors in the United States are in similar positions. “Some of this obviously relates to equipment maintenance, some of this relates to training, some of this relates to procedures.”
David E. Noyes, a director of regulatory and performance improvement at Entergy, said some of Pilgrim’s shutdown problems can be traced to new equipment, such as leaks in safety valves installed in 2011 — they have been problems at other plants, too — and contract work done at the facility.
Two of Pilgrim’s shutdowns, meanwhile, were caused by a loss of offsite power, once when a storm knocked out a utility line into the station, and again when a pole at a nearby substation failed. “We’re not seeing any issues with the plant in terms of age or obsolescence,” Noyes said.
Ultimately, Mohl said, he sees Pilgrim and Entergy’s other nuclear facilities as critical pieces of the nation’s power supply, particularly if the country is going to cut fossil fuel emissions, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to climate change.
“If you don’t include nuclear as part of that portfolio, you are really not going to be able to achieve [carbon dioxide] reduction or climate goals,” he said, and “you start to put in jeopardy the overall reliability of the system.”