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Nuke debate expected to reignite this fall

Nuclear-industry advocates intend to regroup this summer and assess their best strategy for reintroducing legislation this fall to support nuclear plants, with the goal of giving state leaders time to debate whether to help the industry financially as deadlines near for closing the Beaver Valley plant in western Pennsylvania, several observers noted.

Both industry advocates and opponents said they expect current bills in the state House and Senate to fade away. After Exelon made a final decision in May to close the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, they said, there was little-to-no appetite to keep those measures moving forward.

Nonetheless, industry observers said they learned from the process. Before putting up new ideas, they said, they will consider opponents’ concerns, such as including more incentives for renewable energy producers like wind and solar.

However, any proposals would need to be re-introduced by the end of the year, so that decisions could be made by next summer, when the owner of Beaver Valley Power Station, FirstEnergy Solutions, will be deciding whether to spend the estimated $52 million that it would cost to refuel the plant.

Refueling takes months, so if that 2020 timetable cannot be met, the process to close the two nuclear units at Beaver Valley would continue in 2021, said Dave Griffing, vice president of government affairs, with Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions.

Opponents of plans to help the industry, including Eric Epstein who is chairman of Three Mile Island Alert Inc. in Harrisburg, said they will continue to monitor the situation and oppose any new efforts. Epstein and others have advocated for more state investment in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, because they would aid future generations. Although renewables make up a fraction of the current energy mix, with nuclear, natural gas and coal still playing major roles in production, the support for renewables continues to grow, observers have said.

“As coal and nuclear’s energy share declined, we realized cheaper prices and attained more reserve capacity with home-grown sources. We have attained energy independence,” Epstein said in an email. “There is no need to continue to bail out uneconomical nuclear plants like Beaver Valley.”

Epstein said he would expect the nuclear industry to push for new initiatives, but he doesn’t think there is adequate political support to help Beaver Valley or the state’s other nuclear power plants at Peach Bottom in York County, Susquehanna in Luzerne County, and Limerick in Montgomery County.

“While the issue may reappear in the fall, Pennsylvania has more pressing legislative issues including a severance fee for Marcellus Shale, removing the statute of limitations for child abuse, and transportation funding,” he also said. “We should permit the forces of economics and technology to phase out old and uneconomical plants in favor of newer, clean energy technologies.”

Advocates for Pennsylvania’s nuclear energy industry — including Nuclear Powers Pennsylvania, a coalition of various community and business groups — argue that the industry provides family-sustaining jobs and helps eliminate carbon pollution on a much larger scale than other energy sources.

One of the leaders of the Bicameral Nuclear Energy Caucus of Pennsylvania has been state Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican from Lancaster County. The closing of Three Mile Island is expected to cost surrounding communities in Lancaster and Dauphin counties in terms of good-paying jobs and tax revenues. Efforts to reach Aument were unsuccessful. But several observers said he likely will continue in his role of overseeing legislation.

In state hands

Efforts to support the industry have had varying degrees of success in other states, with New York and New Jersey providing some incentives to help nuclear plants. Ohio also has considered various ideas and is expected to make a decision this summer on what it will do.

At a hearing in Ohio last month, PJM Interconnection, a multistate agency that oversees the regional high-voltage electric grid to ensure it is safe and reliable, discussed the results of a report it had done at the request of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.

The report analyzed what might happen after nuclear plants were retired. Both supporters and opponents of nuclear power saw points in the report that supported their sides of the debate.

Nuclear Powers Pennsylvania, for example, said in a statement that the PJM report showed nuclear plants are “the least expensive way to maintain environmental progress.”

“The bottom line in the new PJM report is that retaining Pennsylvania and Ohio’s at-risk, zero-emission nuclear plants provides significant environmental improvements while saving consumers billions of dollars,” Martin Williams, Nuclear Powers Pennsylvania co-chair, said in a written statement. “These are messages our coalition has consistently been sharing with Pennsylvanians, and so we are glad to see that PJM has joined other voices in affirming this point of view. We look forward to sharing these findings with state lawmakers as we continue to work toward a legislative solution that properly values nuclear energy for its economic and environmental attributes.”

Epstein said opponents saw the report differently.

“That’s quite the industry spin on the PJM report,” he said. “What it actually shows is that wholesale prices may go down — because the system would be even more overbuilt with capacity — but not by enough to offset the cost of the bailouts for Ohio and Pennsylvania ratepayers, so there would still be a sizable cost increase to consumers.”

“Nuclear power is an economic fiction that cannot compete in the marketplace,” he added. “No competent financial adviser would invest your money in nuclear power. Mainstream America drew attention to nuclear’s dark side, but it is Wall Street that shut the plants down.”

PJM officials declined to comment about the varying interpretations of the report, saying through a spokesman that the report and the testimony in Ohio spoke for themselves.

Any help for the industry likely would have to come from the states, because the federal government does not intend to get involved, according to a recent article posted by S&P Global, which monitors various industries for news that might help investors.

In the June article, S&P Global quoted U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry that his agency would leave any assistance to the states and that the Department of Energy is not developing any initiatives to support either nuclear or coal.

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