Poll: Pennsylvania voters strongly support nuclear energy as Legislature debates bailout

Three Mile Island. (Z22/Wikimedia Commons)

This story was edited on Thursday, March 29 to clarify the varied stances that groups in the manufacturing industry hold on the nuclear bill.

Lawmakers may be skeptical about a plan to keep the state’s nuclear power plants afloat, but a new poll has found it has broad public support despite its anticipated cost to consumers.

Eighteen percent of Pennsylvania voters strongly favor a proposal that would keep nuclear plants open by adding nuclear energy to the state’s clean energy law, a new Franklin & Marshall College poll found. Thirty-two percent somewhat favor the proposal.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents oppose or strongly oppose it, and 14 percent did not have an opinion.

Pennsylvania currently gets more power from nuclear energy than from any other energy source, including natural gas, coal, or wind and solar power.

But nuclear advocates say the industry’s future in Pennsylvania is in peril if the state does not update its energy laws.

Owners of two of the state’s five nuclear power plants say they will close the facilities by 2021 if state lawmakers do not assist the industry, and the owners of the other plants say that more closures will follow.

That would be unwelcome news to the 55 percent of poll respondents who say that nuclear energy should remain part of the state’s long-term energy strategy. Thirty-two percent disagreed, and 14 percent did not have an opinion.

Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin, introduced a bill earlier this year that would amend the state’s clean energy law to require electricity companies to purchase clean energy credits from nuclear power providers.

The plan would create a new revenue source for nuclear power plants that the industry says is essential to its long-term survival. But it would also result in higher electricity bills for consumers — an outcome that wasn’t noted in the F&M survey.

Independent analysts expect utility companies would pass the estimated $500 million annual cost on to ratepayers, who would see an estimated increase of $1.77 per month to their electricity bills, Mehaffie said on March 11.

Mehaffie’s legislative district includes the Three Mile Island plant in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County, which is scheduled to begin closing in July if lawmakers do not develop a legislative fix.

The proposal is the result of more than two years of fervent lobbying and advocacy in the state Capitol. It has the support of the nuclear industry, business groups, and some manufacturing companies and unions.

Meanwhile, consumer advocates, utility companies, some environmental groups, and the influential Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association have made clear their opposition.

Lawmakers from both parties have been slow to embrace the bill, saying it’s a short-sighted bailout for the otherwise profitable companies that own nuclear plants.

READ MORE: Should lawmakers prop up Pennsylvania’s struggling nuclear industry? The debate, explained

Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican whose Lancaster County district includes the Peach Bottom nuclear plant, said Wednesday that he hopes to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week.

Even though the new F&M poll found broad support for nuclear energy in Pennsylvania, it also suggested that voters have a loose understanding of its environmental benefits.

When asked which energy source was the most environmentally friendly — nuclear, natural gas, or coal — 37 percent of survey respondents picked natural gas.

Natural gas emits high levels of carbon, and even though nuclear energy is carbon-free, only 20 percent of poll respondents identified it as the most environmentally friendly energy source.

Two percent of those surveyed said that carbon-rich coal is the most environmentally friendly, and 35 percent identified “other” energy sources.

The F&M poll surveyed 540 registered voters — including 254 Democrats, 216 Republicans, and 70 independents — between March 18 and 24. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.

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