PLYMOUTH — Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, which has supplied power to more than a half-million homes and businesses for four decades but has also been a deep source of angst in the region, will close no later than June 2019, its operators said Tuesday.
The announcement, coming a month after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to designate Pilgrim one of the nation’s three least-safe reactors, was cheered by opponents of the plant. But it also raised questions about how Massachusetts will replace its chief source of energy free of carbon emissions.
Officials at Entergy Corp., the Louisiana-based energy conglomerate that has owned Pilgrim since 1999, said the 43-year-old plant is “simply no longer financially viable.”
“I can personally tell you that this was an agonizing decision and an extremely tough call,” Bill Mohl, who oversees most of the company’s nuclear power plants, told a press conference in Plymouth.
In an interview with the Globe, Mohl said Entergy faced the “harsh reality” that Pilgrim probably will lose about $40 million a year until it closes.
The plummeting price of a competing fuel, natural gas, and the reluctance of federal and regional officials to provide financial incentives for nuclear power plants put further pressure on Entergy to close the plant, Mohl said. He said the decision was also influenced by the state’s effort to secure long-term agreements to procure hydroelectric power from Canada and expand the capacity of pipelines to pump more natural gas to the state.
“Closing the plant on this schedule was not what any of us had hoped for. But we have reluctantly concluded it is the appropriate action,” he said.
Mohl said Pilgrim’s 633 employees will remain on the payroll until the plant closes, which could happen as early as 2017, if Entergy decides next year not to refuel its reactor. Decommissioning it, however, could take decades.
The company estimates it will cost between $45 million and $60 million to comply with the increased inspections required by the regulatory commission. Entergy may have to spend more to address any significant issues that arise from the inspections at Pilgrim, the site of a series of unplanned shutdowns in recent years.
Governor Charlie Baker said the shutdown of Pilgrim “poses a potential energy shortage’’ for Massachusetts and New England. He called for more focus on developing “clean, reliable, affordable’’ energy sources for the state. “Our administration will work closely with Pilgrim’s leadership team and federal regulators to ensure that this decision is managed as safely as possible,’’ Baker said in a press release.
Pilgrim supplies an average of about 5 percent of the region’s energy, and the 680-megawatt plant, which powers roughly 600,000 homes and businesses a year, accounts for about 84 percent of the state’s noncarbon emitting energy. The closure of the plant could make it significantly harder to meet the state’s goals of cutting its carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below by 2050.
The state, which has cut its emissions by 14 percent below 1990 levels, will need to make up for the zero-emissions power that Pilgrim supplied, said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at the Mass Audubon. He urged state officials to boost investments in offshore wind farms and solar energy.
In Plymouth, there was a mix of deep concern from supporters of the plant and great relief from those who have sought to shut it down.
The plant, which provides more than $9 million a year to Plymouth and tens of millions of dollars in additional financial benefits to the region, had its license renewed three years ago and could have continued operating until 2032.
Craig A. Pinkham, acting president of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 369, said he hoped Entergy could find a way to keep the plant operating.
“It is not acceptable to walk away from a resource this valuable, and this important to our energy supply and to our economy, simply because it is going to require an investment to maintain its viability,” he said. “Entergy needs to sharpen its pencil, go back to the drawing board . . . and come back with a plan to keep this plant running affordably and safely.’’
But Mohl said the decision has been made. The company has informed ISO New England, which operates the region’s electrical grid, that it wouldn’t participate in its next auction, a prerequisite to selling power.
Advocates for nuclear power called Entergy’s decision “disconcerting.”
“The human tragedy is that hundreds of hard-working, highly skilled men and women employed at Pilgrim will lose their jobs,” said Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association for the nuclear power industry.
Opponents of Pilgrim, who have long protested the plant’s safety record and have raised environmental concerns, celebrated the announcement.
“They should shut down now, saving them money and us peace of mind,” said Mary Lampert, director of Pilgrim Watch, a Duxbury group that has been calling for the plant’s closure for years.
Senator Edward J. Markey, another longtime critic, called Entergy’s decision prudent. “While nuclear energy was once advertised as being too cheap to meter, it is increasingly clear that it is actually too expensive to matter,’’ he said in a statement. “The remaining period of operation of Pilgrim needs to be with the utmost attention to safety and security.’’
Officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said they will maintain close oversight of the plant through its decommissioning, which by law could take up to 60 years after the plant shuts down, said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the commission. Until the plant closes, Pilgrim will be subject to expensive federal inspections that will review whether equipment failure, procedural trouble, or human error led to the shutdowns in 2013 and 2015.
Tim Mitchell, acting chief nuclear officer for Entergy’s nuclear power plants, said the company will do whatever is necessary to ensure Pilgrim remains safe. “The challenges that have occurred over the last couple of years that resulted in our regulatory downgrade did not threaten the health and safety of the public,” he said.
Mohl said the company plans to cut its Pilgrim staff in half when it shutters the plant. That could occur anytime over the next four years, if the company finds a way to meet its commitments to ISO New England. Entergy would have to find another power source to replace the energy it has committed to the grid.
What comes afterward, at the moment, remains unclear, Mohl said. As with other nuclear plants that have been shuttered in the region, the operators will need to leave radioactive waste on the site of Pilgrim until the federal government finds a suitable location to store the spent fuel. Where to store the waste permanently has divided politicians for decades.
Some neighbors in Plymouth worry about the prospect of nuclear waste remaining at the plant for years to come.
“What has happened is that a bad dream is turning into a nightmare,” said Jeff Berger, chairman emeritus of a nonpartisan advisory group to the town called the Nuclear Matters Committee. “The plant is going to have a lot fewer people guarding a lot of nuclear waste, and that’s a real concern.”