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July 31, 2017 Editorial

Millstone issue requires more independent analysis

When a government official asks for a “study” to be completed on a legislative proposal, it's oftentimes a delay tactic to avoid a decision on a controversial topic.

We often criticize such requests as political gamesmanship, especially when there is simply no need to study an issue further. We prefer action over deliberation.

There are, however, some exceptions. For example, we applaud Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's decision last week to order a study on the economic conditions and competitive landscape impacting Millstone Power Plant, whose owners have threatened to close its nuclear reactors in Watertown if lawmakers don't grant it a new, more lucrative way to sell its power.

Millstone's demands were reflected in one of the most controversial bills this legislative session; it passed the Senate but failed to garner enough support in the House. Virginia-based Dominion Resources, Millstone's operator, is still pushing for the bill to be passed in a special session.

Stakes surrounding the issue are extremely high. Not only is Millstone a major employer but it produces nearly half the state's electricity. It's also a carbon-free power source, helping the state meet its clean-energy goals.

Changing the way Millstone is allowed to sell its power, by allowing it to compete in a state-run bidding process for renewable and clean energy, could significantly impact Connecticut's electricity prices. If Millstone were to close, the consequences are just as frightening — the state would lose a major clean-energy source and good-paying jobs.

The problem is, there's been very little clear and independent analysis of the bill's impact, leaving ratepayers and lawmakers in the lurch. Flying blind on a bill of such importance doesn't lead to good policymaking.

Millstone says the legislation is necessary to help stabilize its profits at a time when many other U.S. nuclear plants are closing because of high costs and steep competition from natural gas plants. In Connecticut, natural gas prices helped drag down wholesale power prices to record lows last year, which hurt Millstone.

At least one report, however, said Millstone is still profitable. An opposition group — made up of an odd coalition of power plants, environmentalists and the AARP — released a report in April arguing Millstone recorded a $150 million after-tax profit in 2016. A report from MIT researchers earlier this year also estimated that Millstone was the most profitable nuke plant in the country.

Dominion — a publicly traded company that doesn't break out Millstone's individual finances — says its profits are shrinking, but so far it has refused to open its books and be transparent with lawmakers about its financial position. That's a major red flag.

The nuclear plant also said the bill could help lower electricity prices, but its opponents argue the opposite. In a state already burdened by some of the highest energy prices in the country, that's another major concern.

Meantime, ratepayers are caught in the middle of this political fight.

The only clear answer is that legislators and the public need more data to make a sound decision on this issue. Greenlighting the new purchasing process simply because Millstone's owners have been apoplectic with lawmakers' inaction is no way to govern. State government can't be held hostage by a single company.

While we've long advocated for a more fair and just business climate in the state, we often oppose government's tendencies to offer special deals to individual companies. It upsets the balance of a level playing field.

So, let's head back to the classroom and study this issue some more. Malloy has asked that a report be completed by the start of next year's legislative session. Waiting a few more months won't put Millstone out of business. We need more transparency and facts before an informed decision can be made.

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