Former Gov. Tom Ridge backs deal to help state nuclear industry

Gov. Tom Ridge testifies before a House Committee on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

At the first of four hearings on a bill written to aid the state’s nuclear power sector, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge told a state House panel Monday that he supports giving the industry a helping hand.

Ridge, the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary, told the House Consumer Affairs Committee the choice facing lawmakers is “a policy decision on the type of Pennsylvania we want for tomorrow.” He cited saving jobs, boosting energy security, and reducing carbon emissions as reasons for his support.

The owners of two of Pennsylvania’s five nuclear plants have announced plans to shutter in the face of low electricity prices driven by plentiful natural gas.

One plant, Three Mile Island just south of Harrisburg, is operating in the red. Its owner, Exelon, on whose board Ridge once served, said the closure process will begin in June barring state action to buffer plant revenues.

The proposed bill would add the state’s five nuclear plants to an alternative energy portfolio previously open to solar, wind, hydroelectric, and other renewable sources.

An independent analysis estimated the bill would add about $500 million total to state utility bills. The average consumer would see a $1.77 increase per month.

Ridge said that the low prices of the current electricity market do not take into account the advantages of nuclear power during natural and man-made disasters, such as a cold snap or a terrorist attack.

But electricity distributors have waved away claims that the grid would lose stability without nuclear plants.

Ridge, a Republican governor from 1994 until 2001, helped shepherd the state’s first crack at energy reform through the Legislature in the mid ’90s. Deregulating state energy markets led to a drop in state retail electricity prices. But critics of a proposed nuclear deal say those gains could be lost.

“It really undoes a lot of the work it took us to get here,” Glenn Thomas, a former policy adviser to Ridge and ex-Public Utilities commissioner, testified Monday.

How much the former governor’s opinion will matter isn’t clear. Lawmakers from both parties pushed back on his testimony.

Ridge testified as part of a panel of backers of the deal. Dauphin County Commissioner Mike Pries, another supporter, said a poll from the pro-nuclear Clean Jobs PA coalition  found 72 percent of registered voters would be more likely to vote for a state legislator who fought for the nuclear industry.

The poll, which did not inform survey-takers of the projected increase in cost to consumers, also found that three out of four voters would support treating nuclear power like other renewable energy sources.

A recent Franklin and Marshall College poll found similar support, but also omitted information about potential cost.

The hearings are aimed at helping inform members of the complexity of the topic before any potential votes, Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman Brad Roae, R-Crawford, said.

He added that the impact of a failed nuclear industry is still unclear even to lawmakers.

Nuclear allies have pointed to an independent Penn State study that showed a worst case scenario of a four to 10 percent spike in electricity prices without nuclear plants.

The study’s author, Seth Blumsack, told the Capital-Star it is incorrect to use the most extreme example to paint a bleak picture of price increases.

“Part of the message of the paper I wrote is we should have the debate over the nuclear fleet in Pennsylvania, but it’s not really a debate about electricity costs,” Blumsack said. “It’s really more of a debate about the environmental footprint of electricity generation.”

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