Zach Hollcraft, a resident inspector with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, gives a presentation from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant simulator, a replica of the actual control room. Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission / Flickr / Creative Commons

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Some environmental groups see a proposed nuclear power plant bailout as an opportunity to boost clean energy, too.

Clean energy advocates in Pennsylvania are weighing whether to throw their support behind a proposed bailout for the state’s nuclear power plants.

The state’s environmental groups have said little publicly about the plan recently floated by two legislators, but behind the scenes some see the debate as a chance to make more progress on energy efficiency and renewables.

Much like the Green New Deal, though, any bargain will have to contend with decades of cultural and political baggage with potential to splinter support.

“Historically, nuclear power has been one of the big bugaboos of the environmental movement. That continues to the present,” said John Quigley, director of the Center for Environment, Energy, and Economy at Harrisburg University and a former state environmental secretary.

Pennsylvania is second only to Illinois for the percentage of electricity generation from nuclear power. In 2017, nuclear provided 42 percent of the state’s electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Two of Pennsylvania’s five nuclear plants are scheduled to close early. Exelon plans to shutter its Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg this fall — 15 years before its operating license expires. Last year FirstEnergy announced it would retire its Beaver Valley plant ahead of schedule, in 2021.

The closures are part of a broader trend across the U.S., as the nuclear industry struggles to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewables. Nuclear industry advocates argue the current market design is flawed because it does not recognize the carbon-free benefits nuclear plants provide.

Two Pennsylvania legislators began circulating co-sponsorship memos earlier this month offering a first look at what a nuclear bailout bill may look like. Rep. Thomas Mehaffie and Sen. Ryan Aument, both Republicans from central Pennsylvania, asked colleagues to support broadening the state’s alternative energy portfolio standard to include nuclear power. The 2004 law requires utilities to purchase part of their electricity from clean and alternative sources.

Mehaffie and Aument have also touted a new legislative report that warns early nuclear plant closures would be a “devastating and permanent blow” to Pennsylvania’s environment and economy. The report suggests looking to other states, such as New York and Illinois, which have created zero-emission credits for nuclear plants — essentially broadening the definitions of clean power to include them.


Read more: In Illinois, potential plant closures reignite nuclear debate


Whether nuclear should count as clean power has been the source of tense debate among environmentalists and climate hawks, most recently as Democrats in Congress debate what to include in the Green New Deal.

Mark Szybist, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said not all the environmental groups in Pennsylvania are on the same page, but he believes they are united in the fact they want any nuclear bailout to include more than just help for struggling plants.

“Nobody wants to see a straight-up no-strings-attached subsidy package for nuclear plants that does not also include measures to transition us to a cleaner energy future,” Szybist said. “Where I think where you’re going to see some level of disagreement [among environmental groups] is exactly what that transition package should look like.”

Nuclear power plants are the nation’s largest source carbon-free emissions. However, the U.S. still has no real plans about how to dispose of the plants’ radioactive waste, and a single accident can have catastrophic consequences.

Quigley, of the Center for Environment, Energy, and Economy, said it will be interesting to see which environmental groups are willing to stand up.

“If the environmental community is serious about climate change, they should support the right kind of nuclear bailout package,” Quigley said. “All the climate science and data is extremely alarming.”

In addition to preserving that carbon-free electricity, the negotiations offer a chance to extend the state’s alternative generation standard, which requires utilities get 18 percent of electricity from alternative sources by 2021.

Getting support from environmental groups could be critical in a state with a powerful natural gas industry that is likely to oppose any package that props up nuclear or promotes renewables.

“It’s going to be a thin margin with numbers — around how you get a deal and get the votes,” said Christina Simeone, of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “So you’ll need all the support you can get.”

Simeone thinks environmental groups are likely to support zero-emission credits for nuclear plants if the legislation also advances things like renewable energy and transportation electrification. If not, expect them to back away, she said.

A formal bill is expected to be introduced in Harrisburg in the near future, but its fate will likely not be known until June, amid the annual state budget deadline when lawmakers move many important pieces of legislation.

Quigley said he’s keen to see how the groups will align themselves.

“It will be fascinating to see how it unfolds,” he said. “I have not seen much from the environmental community other than some vague or tepid statements. I haven’t seen anyone come out strongly. It’s critically important to the state and to the world. Pennsylvania has to do the right thing here and get into step into fighting climate change.”

Marie Cusick

Marie Cusick is a multimedia reporter based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She has covered energy and environmental issues for public media stations in Albany, New York and Pennsylvania since 2011.