, Salem, MA

April 18, 2011

Rep. Keenan talks about nuclear power, Salem coal plant

By Garrett Brnger

SALEM — Salem Rep. John Keenan is the new chairman for the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, a job that has taken on greater significance with the nuclear disaster in Japan.

The Salem Democrat shared his thoughts this week on nuclear power in Massachusetts.

Your committee is probably getting a lot more work right now after the incident in Japan.

Absolutely. I have to say, I was named chairman of this committee a few weeks before this incident happened. I would imagine, much like the legislators in our committee here in Massachusetts, many of the legislators in the 31 states that have nuclear reactors have probably responded thoroughly, in that they wanted to hold hearings and make sure communities prepare in the event that we have some sort of disaster, natural or other, that causes a problem.

This was not an issue that I felt was going to be a first issue to have for my committee, but it just so happens that was the case.

How safe should state residents feel with three nuclear power plants within or just outside our borders?

I think that was part of our goal for having the hearing last week at the Statehouse — to bring in the two companies, Entergy, who owns both Pilgrim and Yankee Vermont, and then NextEra, which owns Seabrook. ...

I was certainly comfortable with their responses and their talking about their preparedness for any sort of natural disaster or sabotage or those sorts of things, and talking about their backup systems. ...

So I just hope we did reveal that Massachusetts and Massachusetts Emergency Management (MEMA) is prepared in the event something like that does happen, but we also asked some important questions about how the communities communicate with each other.

I think overall the citizens can feel safe. Nuclear power plays a very important role in the region. I think it accounts for almost 30 percent of the baseload here in the New England ISO (independent system operator) region.

What steps are the utilities taking to make sure there won't be a repeat of the catastrophe in Japan?

I don't think you can ever say anything is 100 percent fail-proof, but having two or three systems ready to go and kept in working fashion is critical to the folks who live in the emergency evacuation zone. ...

As a result of the failed effort on behalf of the federal government to build the depository at Yucca Mountain, both companies have explained to us the process and capital planning they're doing to build dry storage facilities on-site. ... But we are encouraging, as did the governor, that the federal government either move forward with that project or another project.

They collected over $25 billion from ratepayers in nuclear power companies over the last several decades to build this thing, and they haven't done it. So they need to do that, or send the money back to the various facilities so they can build appropriate dry storage on site.

The cost of electricity in Massachusetts is among the highest in the country. Why?

I think one of the reasons is we're sort of at the end of the energy line, if you will. We don't necessarily have natural resources here.

Most of our electricity is generated from fossil fuels, whether gas or coal that's brought into the area. It is getting a little better; the cost of natural gas is starting to go down a little bit and level out over the last year or so. The discovery of shale gas in Pennsylvania, I think, is going to provide ample gas going forward.

Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build, but they are ... a critical component. So I don't know how we could think about replacing the 650 megawatts at Pilgrim and another 650 megawatts at Vermont Yankee. It's a huge part of our energy here in New England.

What are you hearing about the future of the coal-burning plant, Salem Harbor Station?

I asked a sort of similar question because our power plant also has the capacity of about 750 megawatts, which is sort of equal to that of Pilgrim or Vermont Yankee, and has been critical to the reliability of this area for a long, long time.

There are no new plants that I'm aware of, of that magnitude, being planned or being built. The only thing that ISO has talked about is transmission into the region. But that is perhaps more costly than the improvements that need to be done at Salem Harbor, and quite some time before you actually get some study up in terms of transmission lines.

I am hopeful and confident that ISO will determine in May that the plant is still needed for reliability in the grid. In Massachusetts, coal follows nuclear as the biggest baseload. So it's an important piece.

Again, I think we have to diversify. I think nuclear is a part of the solution. Clean coal is perhaps part of the solution. Renewable, I certainly support its development in Massachusetts. So we have to continue to look at all facets, and I think the Salem power plant does play a role.

What steps could the state take to mitigate the tax loss to the city if the plant closes?

Sen. Berry (Fred Berry, D-Peabody) and I took some steps a few years ago in the Green Communities Act, and put a sort of backstop in there in terms of taxes, which is still in effect through Dec. 31. In the event that the tax proceeds go down from the power plant to the city of Salem, the funds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative auction would fill out that gap.

Right now, we receive about $4.75 million in taxes from the plant. ... Sen. Berry and I have also filed legislation this term to extend that protection. We're hopeful we can move that along.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about the work you and the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee are doing right now?

We try to be prepared in the very unfortunate instance that something like this (Japan) were to happen. It made for a very interesting beginning of my tenure as chairman of this committee.