Why some environmental groups oppose a bill to help out low-carbon nuclear plants

By: - April 5, 2019 6:30 am

Three Mile Island. (Z22/Wikimedia Commons)

After Sen. Ryan Aument revealed his version of a plan to prop up the state’s nuclear power plants on Wednesday, it didn’t take long for the criticism to start rolling in.

“We don’t need to see the forthcoming bill to know that any proposed legislation would rob ratepayers, including Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens, to support corporate greed,” the No Nukes Bailout Coalition, a group that includes the AARP, gas industry interests, and commercial electric users, said in a statement Wednesday.

The debate over whether lawmakers should forestall the shutdowns of two of the state’s five nuclear power plants is one of the most divisive issues of this legislative session. A bill similar to Aument’s was introduced in the House in March.

And it’s made unlikely allies among some critics, which include everyone from liberal consumer advocates to the conservative Americans for Prosperity.

While arguing against a proposal that would raise consumer electricity prices, these critics point out that the companies that own nuclear plants are profitable, even if individual nuclear facilities, such as the Three Mile Island reactor in Dauphin County, are not.

Two of Pennsylvania’s five nuclear power plants are slated to close by 2021, their owners say, if state lawmakers do not help them generate more revenue. That includes Three Mile Island, which neighbors Aument’s Lancaster County district.

A bill Aument introduced Wednesday would amend the state’s clean energy law to designate nuclear power as a clean energy resource, making nuclear companies eligible to sell clean energy credits to electricity companies.

Aument said the goal of his bill is to promote clean energy and “take climate change seriously.” But his proposal has failed to woo environmental groups, which have emerged instead as some of its most vocal critics.

While environmental organizations say they recognize the contributions of nuclear power to reducing carbon emissions, they also say a bill tailored to a specific industry isn’t the same thing as a commitment to clean energy.

“Pennsylvania’s energy sector is one of the dirtiest in the country, and it risks being left behind in the regional marketplace without a comprehensive approach to carbon pollution,” Andrew Williams of the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement. “The current bill saddles consumers with costs and risks, with no guarantee of securing the carbon reductions Pennsylvania must achieve.”

The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council made a similar argument in a letter it sent to Pennsylvania lawmakers in February.

“A bill that merely props up uneconomical nuclear plants without putting Pennsylvania firmly on a path to continuing decreases in carbon pollution and a growing clean energy economy is not a climate bill,” the letter reads.

In an interview Wednesday, Aument rebutted the bill’s critics, arguing that an assist to the nuclear industry was better than nothing. And it’s a necessary step to preserve carbon-free energy in the state.

“I think those goals have to be balanced with what’s economically achievable and what’s politically achievable,” Aument said.

Aument said his bill would ensure that at least two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s wholesale energy market would come from clean energy — no small feat in a state with a powerful natural gas industry.

That figure reflects the combination of nuclear energy, which currently supplies about 40 percent of the state’s energy, and renewable resources such as wind, solar, and hydropower, which must provide 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s energy market under its clean energy law.

Aument and other nuclear defenders say that the share of nuclear energy in the market would decrease in the long-term future if the plants don’t get a financial boost.

A bill like the one in the Senate would show the state’s commitment to ensuring that a majority of its energy comes from clean sources, Aument said.

“If Pennsylvania were to move in a direction where 68 percent would be committed to carbon reducing resource, that would position Pennsylvania among the leaders of states,” Aument said.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.