When some people hear the words "nuclear power plant," the first image that pops to mind is the cartoon character, Homer Simpson. But as I learned during a recent tour of the Millstone Power Station, nuclear energy is much more complicated and efficient than Homer makes it look.
Millstone Power Station, located in Waterford, Connecticut, began commercial operation in 1970. The station was named after the site’s granite quarry that produced high-quality millstones and structural building granite. Now, owned and operated by Dominion, Millstone is the largest and most important generating facility in all of New England. Of the station’s three power generation units, only two (Millstone 2 and Millstone 3) are currently operational and generate – through the process of nuclear fission – 2,097 megawatts which is more than enough electricity to power 500,000 homes.
The basics of a nuclear power plant are the same as a coal or oil fueled unit. Water is first heated to steam, then the steam is directed to the blades of a turbine causing the turbine to spin, and last, the spinning turbine turns a magnet inside huge coils of wire, producing electricity. Since water is a large factor in the production of energy, Millstone was constructed on Niantic Bay in order to source waters from Long Island Sound as a coolant. The only difference between coal, oil and nuclear units is that with nuclear power, heat is generated from the splitting of the nucleus within a uranium atom – this is nuclear fission. As the heat is not generated through the burning of fossil fuel, this is an emission free energy source.
During the complicated process of nuclear fission, radiation is released. Many folks have a negative impression of radiation and recent events such as the radiation leak at a Japanese nuclear power plant come to mind. To protect against this type of accident, Millstone and other nuclear power generators take additional steps to safeguard people. For instance, during Hurricane Irene, Millstone had emergency plans in place to shut down units if wind speeds exceeded 90 miles per hour.
Any harmful radiation that is emitted during the process of nuclear fission is fully contained within each generation unit and is also fully monitored. The minimal amounts that may escape are not harmful to you or the environment. Everyday we are exposed to small amounts of radiation from the sun, the soil or even the foods we eat. For those of you that are worried and have questions about radiation or emergency preparedness, Millstone and the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security have worked together to supply information to residents. This information is available at www.ct.gov/demhs.
Millstone also works to ensure that the safety of employees is always a top priority. Over the last 10 years, under the ownership of Dominion, the number of occupational safety and health accidents has dropped drastically – to nearly zero. And in an effort to be environmentally sound, Millstone takes precautionary steps so that there will be very minimal effects on the environment. A radiological monitoring program has shown that there is virtually no environmental impact from the operation of the station.
Besides the energy that Millstone produces, the company also supports Connecticut’s economy. Millstone employs 1,100 full time employees and between 800 and 1,100 supplemental employees during specific times of the year.
Further, Millstone Power Station is the town of Waterford’s largest taxpayer which is of great benefit to the local economy. However, now due to new and increased taxes, the power station will also become one of the state’s larger taxpayers. During the 2011 legislative session the Governor and legislative majority voted to implement a new tax on the state’s electric generators – making Connecticut the only state in the country with such a tax. The law, which went into effect on July 1st, is a production tax and taxes coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear generating facilities $2.50 per megawatt hour of production. The new tax is expected to bring in an annual $68 million in additional state revenue. Although the tax is set to “sunset,” or expire in two years, it will have an immense impact on Millstone. In total, Millstone’s new local and state tax liability works out to be nearly $1.5 million per week, and the company will contribute approximately $40 million of the anticipated $68 million annual state gain. It is my hope that this tax does not end up costing Millstone and Connecticut the good jobs that are supplied by the company. I am equally concerned that this tax will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher electric rates.
Touring Millstone was definitely a unique experience and one that shed light on the value and work of this Connecticut business. It was also a welcomed, first-hand look into a source of energy that supplies more than one quarter of our state’s electricity.