Copyright © 2014, by Karl Meyer

The curious nuclear history of Northfield Mountain’s pumped storage plant

(The following piece first appeared on April 30, 2014 in The Recorder in Greenfield, MA, under: Follow the power currents; How the pumping station once fit)

GDF-Suez FirstLight has applied for a new 30-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for its Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage plant on the Connecticut.  In this 5-year relicensing process US Fish & Wildlife Service has requested a study to protect a public resource: they want to know the mortality impacts NMPS has on eggs and larvae of migratory American shad.  But FirstLight wants FERC to substitute data from a 22 year-old Northfield study–their counsel has argued that eggs and larvae aren’t technically migratory, and thus have no right to protection at NMPS. 

Pumped storage is a most inefficient form of generating “hydro” electricity, and NMPS is not what it once was.  When proposed, Northfield was to be a nuclear-charged plant designed to gulp-up massive amounts of the Connecticut River, pushing it uphill to a reservoir carved into a mountain.  This would be done purchasing cheap, otherwise-wasted, night-generated nuclear energy from a fleet of soon-to-be-built local plants–which don’t switch off at night.

Once the net-loss task of pushing water uphill was accomplished via nuclear megawatts and reversing turbines, they’d send that water charging downhill to generate large pulses of energy during peak-use times.  Profits would come from reselling that energy back into the electric grid when demand and prices were highest, with consumers picking up the tab. 

But a river system also bore the hidden costs of NMPS and now USFWS wants to know what they are. FirstLight today doesn’t dispute NMPS kills all adult and juvenile shad drawn into its plant.  But that’s just one species.  FERC itself is mandated to protect federal trust fish, and the public is entitled to information on NMPS’s impacts.  Researchers report it sometimes draws so much river water that boats 5 miles downstream are pulled backward.    

Because of the limits of physics NMPS can only operate for 6 – 8 hours.  Then, water-depleted and power-less—it must again purchase new outside electricity to pump water uphill.  It was new technology when NMPS was proposed–technically “hydro” electricity, but not in the way people commonly understood it. 

During mid-1960s Federal Power Commission hearings, questions arose about the proposed NMPS plant’s impacts on the ecosystem.  One option, never implemented, was that it would cease operating during migration season to avoid slicing up the public’s fish in accordance with goals of the federal Anadromous Fish Conservation Act of 1965.

Back then just one local nuclear plant was operating, Yankee Atomic, 20 miles away in Rowe, MA.  But big, local, nuclear build-out plans were in the offing—the lion’s share of which would come to be owned by Northeast Utilities.  Fifteen miles upstream Vermont Yankee was under construction.  It opened in 1972 in lock-step with the completion of Northfield.  As VY and NMPS began tandem, nuclear-powered operation, plans were already underway for NU to build two reactors at a new Montague Nuclear Station, five miles from Northfield.

By fall of 1973 a 500 foot tower loomed over the Montague Plains, testing humidity, temperature, and prevailing winds in preparation for construction.  That tower was toppled in an act of civil disobedience by Sam Lovejoy the following February, helping bolster opposition to the plants.  But NU rebuilt the tower and collected the mandated data by 1975.  By then however, the playing field was changing.

Environmental questions were raised about the effects of Montague Nuclear Station’s drawing huge amounts of river water and dumping heated effluent back into the Connecticut on the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.  Questions also arose about the cumulative effects of entraining various life stages of American shad into the intake systems of two Montague plants and NMPS. 

Meanwhile, NU moved ahead on planned nuclear plants for the heavily-populated I-95 Providence-/New Haven corridor–some 100 and 125 miles distant from Northfield.  Four got built, but just two operate today. Their Haddam nuclear plant on our river was shut permanently in 1996 for safety and equipment failures.  So too in 1998 was Millstone Unit I in Waterford, CT.  In 1999 NU to accepted the largest nuclear fine to that time–$10 million for operational failures at those plants. 

Opposition, environmental impacts, soaring costs, and a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island saw NU abandon Montague Station in 1980.  Thus the Connecticut River basin doesn’t today host a forth, de-facto, nuclear waste dump.  Rowe’s Yankee Atomic closed in 1992—it’s now repository to hundreds of tons of spent nuclear fuel.  Vermont Yankee will close in December.  Entergy Nuclear has yet to fully endow their mandated decommissioning fund. 

Local nuclear power to push a river up Northfield Mountain is today nearly nonexistent.  The net-loss “hydro” generating process now taking place there essentially derives from a non-renewable, climate-warming mix of oil, coal and natural gas, plus some nuclear and even pulses of conventional hydropower purchased from as far away as Quebec. Beyond the yet-to-be-examined costs to the public’s ecosystem and fish, consumers are paying dearly for Northfield’s twice-sold electricity.  A fair relicensing process requires robust public information on the lethal aspects of Northfield’s operations.  FERC will decide the issue by early May.

Greenfield writer and journalist Karl Meyer has contributed written and oral testimony in the FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls power stations.