- One worker whose job was saved at FitzPatrick Nuclear Plant tells her story
- Thousands work at previously-endangered nuclear power plants across the state
- NY’s Clean Energy Standard provides “level playing field” for all zero-emissions sources
In a small town, news travels fast. So, when New York State regulators began developing energy policy that might save their local nuclear power plant from shutting down, residents in the town of Oswego felt a renewed sense of optimism.
“When the Clean Energy Standard was brought up, there was a lot of hope,” says Chelsea Gill, site materials program engineer at the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant, six miles northeast of the upstate New York town.
Citing the “continued deteriorating economics of the facility,” Entergy Corp.—FitzPatrick’s owner at the time—announced in November 2015 that the plant would be prematurely closed. By the following month, state regulators introduced a Clean Energy Standard (CES) that included a separate Zero Emissions Credit (ZEC) program to compensate the zero-emissions attributes of nuclear power plants like FitzPatrick.
The CES played a pivotal role in changing the plant’s prospects for continued operation, and in August 2016 Exelon, the owner of three other New York nuclear plants, offered to purchase FitzPatrick from Entergy. On March 31, 2017, Exelon officially assumed ownership of FitzPatrick.
“When they were originally going to shut down it was very sad. It was in the back of our minds, but there was still so much to be done. You had to continue your job. But when they mentioned the CES, it definitely changed the environment. People were a lot more hopeful, they were in a better mood.”
Gill knows the story well, because she lived it. Despite being a rising star at “Fitz,” as the plant is locally known, Gill’s position at the plant was eliminated while plans to shutter the plant moved forward. Thanks in part to a program to retrain and rehire nuclear workers, Gill was able to transfer to Exelon’s nearby Nine Mile Point Nuclear Power Plant. She remembers the mood in the town when Entergy announced its plans to shutter the plant.
“You could definitely feel the difference in the community, too,” Gill said. “A lot of the tax base comes from the plant, the schools would have suffered. There was a lot of community support to keep us around, because it would have devastated the area.”
When the debate over the CES began, an outpouring of local support for the plan quickly became evident, Gill said. Losing Fitz was one change the town was not going to take lying down.
“When they mentioned the CES, they had public hearings,” Gill said. “It was really encouraging to see all of the turnout from the community, not even people that worked at the plant, but people who lived in the community who came and spoke about their support for all the nuclear power plants in the area. Teachers, politicians, families, other working professionals in the area: people who had grown up and lived their whole lives not very far from the plant. It was a wide array of people.”
Eventually, the CES was put into place and New York’s upstate nuclear power plants were able to qualify for ZECs. As a result, Gill was able to transfer back to FitzPatrick, where she now manages plant training and maintenance systems.
Asked if her job would still be here today without New York’s CES, Gill is blunt.
“It’s hard to say, but most likely not. No,” Gill said. “It really helped save those plants. All of them. Not just FitzPatrick. Being in a non-regulated market, it’s very hard to make a profit. But thankfully, the CES policy is now in place.”
Of course, it wasn’t only Gill’s job that was saved. FitzPatrick employs 600 full-time plant workers and drives more than $500 million in annual economic activity. The loss of jobs would also have had a substantial knock-on effect on the tax base for the small town and the county, jeopardizing the budgets of local governments and schools. And other upstate nuclear power plants could have shuttered as well without the CES: those facilities employ nearly 2,500 workers.
Overall, the U.S. nuclear industry employs nearly 100,000 people in high-quality, long-term jobs at nuclear plants, vendors and manufacturers. Each of America’s 99 reactors provides approximately 500 to 1,000 jobs. These plants are often located in rural communities, where those hundreds of skilled jobs provide a major, ongoing stimulus to the local economy and boost the tax base. When the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon, Vermont, shut down in 2014, the town had to cut its budget in half.
State policy makers have woken up to the need to preserve nuclear power plants at risk of premature closure due to short-term market inefficiencies. Following New York’s CES initiative, Illinois and New Jersey instituted their own ZEC programs, while Connecticut passed a law allowing its Millstone Power Station to compete with other non-emitting sources. Similar policies supporting nuclear energy are under consideration in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
NEI Senior Director of Policy Development Matt Crozat says these states are simply ensuring all zero-emission electricity sources can compete fairly in the marketplace.
“These policies recognize that nuclear energy is recognized and rewarded for its zero-emission electricity,” Crozat said. “New York’s Clean Energy Standard showed that a policy to support nuclear energy can work alongside renewables programs to achieve state environmental goals.”
Keeping the nation’s nuclear power plants running also is a top priority of the Trump administration. In a recent editorial, Edward McGinnis, the U.S. Department of Energy’s principal deputy assistant secretary for the office of nuclear energy, said the country’s nuclear power plants are vital for maintaining the resilience of the electric grid and boosting national security.
“The Trump administration is committed to reviving and revitalizing the nuclear industry so that we can continue to realize the full benefit of what these reactors have to offer to our nation and counties such as Oswego,” McGinnis said. “We need every reactor in New York and around our nation to keep our grid reliable and resilient as we prepare to meet our future energy demands.”
As for Gill, she is back at “Fitz” doing what she loves day in, day out—going through her checklists to ensure the plant is safely producing electricity and running efficiently. She is involved in Exelon’s Emerging Leaders program and in the local Women in Nuclear chapter. She previously served as president of FitzPatrick’s North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NAYGN) chapter. Gill and her coworkers aren’t just members of the local community—they are also stewards, giving back locally through food drives, litter collection, and fundraising.
But it’s the job that keeps her motivated.
“It’s a safe and rewarding job,” Gill said. “I feel very challenged professionally and mentally. I definitely am applying what I learned in college and I don’t think that’s something everyone can say.”