Consider yourselves warned, fellow citizens. Gov. Paul LePage is fiddling around with Maine’s nuclear hot button.
“We anticipated this might provoke a conversation,” noted Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, in an interview on Friday.
He’s talking about L.D. 1313, a bill quietly submitted by the LePage administration that would eliminate a longstanding requirement that any and all proposed nuclear power projects in Maine be put to a statewide referendum.
Under LePage’s new plan, scheduled for a hearing Wednesday at 1 p.m. before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, voters would no longer have a say on the creation of nuclear power plants with generating capacities of 500 megawatts or less.
(Just so you know, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s Unit 1 reactor – one of three destroyed by Japan’s apocalyptic tsunami in 2011 – had a generating capacity of 460 megawatts.)
Let’s back up a little.
Back in 1987, when the now-defunct Maine Yankee nuclear plant in Wiscasset was still a lightning rod for the state’s highly charged anti-nuclear movement, the Legislature passed a law mandating that future construction of “any nuclear power plant” in Maine “must be submitted to the voters of the State” before any ground is broken.
The 900-megawatt Maine Yankee plant, besieged by structural problems that rendered it unsafe and no longer financially viable, shut down in 1996 and was finally decommissioned in 2005. The shutdown essentially ended decades of debate over what role, if any, nuclear power should play in Maine’s energy portfolio.
Or so we thought.
To be fair, LePage’s out-of-nowhere effort to gut the referendum requirement is not aimed at building another Maine Yankee. Rather, it’s a come-hither wink to what some say is the next generation of nuclear technology – fully assembled “small modular reactors” that can be shipped here, there and everywhere to satisfy a need for electricity without all those sprawling buffer zones and long-distance transmission lines.
“You can put one on the back of a truck,” said Woodcock. “You can transport it by a tractor-trailer.”
Woodcock maintains that as the older, bigger nuclear plants in the Northeast power grid are retired – currently only three remain – the region will need to fill the void without resorting to fossil-fuel generation and a consequent uptick in greenhouse gas emissions. Small modular reactors, or SMRs, could help achieve that goal, he said.
Indeed, the smaller reactors have even attracted the support of the Obama administration, which included them in a recent executive order that government agencies obtain 30 percent of their energy from “alternative” technologies no later than 2025.
But back to Wednesday’s hearing. Considering the complexity and controversy bound to greet any talk of dusting off nuclear generation in Maine, why start with a bill that effectively tells voters they’re being cut out of the process?
Or, as longtime anti-nuclear activist Ray Shadis of Edgecomb put it on Friday, “You don’t start a conversation by throwing a hand grenade in the room.”
Shadis, who currently represents the lone remaining intervenor in the proposed relicensing of New Hampshire’s Seabrook nuclear plant, sees this week’s hearing as “the kind of rudeness we’ve come to expect from Gov. LePage.”
He also thinks the governor is dreaming if he thinks small modular reactors – the brainchildren of a new generation of nuclear engineers working mostly out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – can attract the investment capital needed to put them on the energy radar here in Maine or anywhere else, for that matter.
“It seems smart. It seems 21st century. But it is not,” Shadis said, noting that for all the design work that’s been done on small modular reactors over the past decade or so, they’ve generated virtually no interest on Wall Street.
“The most rabid anti-nuclear crowd are the investors in the market,” Shadis noted. “It takes a long time to realize any return at all. And the entirety of what you invest can turn from an asset to a liability overnight. Why bother risking your money? So they don’t.”
Thus, he said, LePage’s bill at best “is impractical, it’s silly. Out there in the energy world, where people are really trading on this stuff, it will make Maine the laughingstock. It will make us look like patsies.”
Shadis isn’t the only one watching with a raised eyebrow. Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, can’t understand why the LePage administration would start this “conversation” by first erasing voters from the equation.
“I think nuclear power as a political question requires statewide conversation,” Dion said in an interview. “I mean, the fact that we would somehow use a technical standard of megawatts to determine whether constituents or citizens have a voice in deciding on how appropriate that technology might be for the state is an incredibly less candid way to begin that process.”
Don’t get him wrong. Dion sees the role of small-scale nuclear generation as “a legitimate policy question.”
“But this isn’t the way to do it,” he added.
Energy Director Woodcock, who concedes he’s too young to remember the rough-and-tumble days when protesters chained themselves to the fences of Maine Yankee and other nuclear power plants throughout New England, suggests we not look at L.D. 1313 as a curtailment of the public’s role in nuclear policy.
Rather, he said, it’s an acknowledgment that nuclear power is “a very different industry today” that isn’t going to come to a place like Maine if, in addition to a laborious permitting process, it must also wage a political campaign to get its project approved.
“I do believe this is almost clarifying,” said Woodcock. “Actually, what we’re really doing is making (the current statute) consistent with what the Legislature was envisioning when they passed this – that a Maine Yankee-style facility has to go through referendum.”
Actually, what young Woodcock is doing is revising history to suit his boss’s political agenda. When the Legislature said all those years ago that “any nuclear power plant” must have voter approval, it’s a pretty safe bet that it meant any nuclear power plant.
That said, even Woodcock is bracing himself for who, and how many, might show up come Wednesday.
“The legacy of Maine Yankee is going to color this,” he acknowledged. “I think it will provoke a debate.”
If not a political meltdown.