Towns feel economic pinch when nuclear plants close
OAK HARBOR, Ohio — Living in the shadows of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant’s cooling tower, which soars above Lake Erie in Ohio like an oversized lighthouse, brings with it some give and take.
On the plus side, it generates tax money that once paid for a high school swimming pool and auditorium. Then there are the stockpiles of radiation pills and emergency drills for students in case of a disaster.
For the small, mostly rural towns that are home to 61 U.S. nuclear plants that produce one-fifth of the nation’s electricity, each one has been like the golden goose supplying high-paying jobs and money for roads, police and libraries.
But those same places and their residents are bracing for what might come next due to the soaring costs of running aging reactors that have speeded up the closings of a handful of sites and are threatening at least a dozen more. That’s because once the power stops flowing, so does the money.
Towns that have seen nuclear plants shuttered are now dealing with higher property taxes, cuts in services and less school funding — a new reality that might linger for decades.
In Wisconsin, the tiny town of Carlton saw the source of about 70 percent of its yearly budget disappear when the Kewaunee nuclear power plant closed four years ago. That resulted in the first town tax in its history.
“Financially, we benefited, but now we’re going to pay the price for the next 40 years,” said David Hardtke, the town chairman.
When operations ceased at the Crystal River Nuclear Plant along Florida’s Gulf Coast, “it was like something going through and wiping out a third of your county,” Citrus County Administrator Randy Oliver said.
To make up the difference, property tax rates went up by 31 percent and 100 county workers were let go.
While the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants wasn’t designed to last forever, closures are happening earlier than expected because repair costs are astronomical and it’s harder to compete with cheaper natural gas-fired plants and renewable energy sources.
The former head of the nuclear industry’s trade group said last year that economic pressures have put 15 to 20 plants at risk of a premature shutdown.
FirstEnergy Corp. will decide by next year whether to close or sell its plant in Pennsylvania and two in Ohio, including Davis-Besse, unless the states change regulations to make them more competitive.
The uncertainty around Davis-Besse and a plan to lower its value caused the local school board to shelve plans to build a new elementary building for the district, which stands to lose $8 million a year without the plant.
New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., owner of the Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan, announced plans late last year to close in 2018 even though it has a license to keep operating another 14 years.
How much the losses will add up to isn’t clear yet, said Dennis Palgen, a township supervisor where the plant has operated since 1971.
“We’re just in a state of limbo right now,” he said, adding that plans to buy a new fire truck are on hold.
The plant and its 600 workers have been good neighbors, he said, buying backpacks for school children and emergency generators for the township. “The list goes on and on,” Palgen said.
In some cases, utilities are paying communities and schools during the first few years to help ease the sudden loss of their largest employer and taxpayer.
What makes recovering tough is that almost all of the plants are in out-of-the-way places that have become heavily reliant on them. And they employ specialized workers who are quick to leave for still-operating locations.
To make matters worse, many closed sites can’t be redeveloped because they’re still storing radioactive waste.
Some hope the Trump administration’s new budget proposal to revive the mothballed disposal site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain will eventually allow for new development at the former plants.
“We have become a de facto nuclear waste dump. It just sits there, and sits there forever,” said Al Hill, the mayor in Zion, Illinois, where spent nuclear fuel remains stored on prime property along Lake Michigan even though the plant shut down 20 years ago.
On top of that, the closing took away half of the city’s tax base and pushed property taxes to the highest in the state, making it difficult to lure new businesses, Hill said.
Left behind are empty storefronts and little foot traffic, said Chris Daisy, who runs a downtown bicycle shop.
“It’s had a devastating effect on this town,” he said. “It’s terrible. Any town with a nuclear power plant in it or near it is in danger of suffering the same fate.”