OP-ED: Reilly urges support for nuclear power industry in Pa.

Chris Reilly
York County commissioner
Photos of the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility. January 31, 2018.
John A. Pavoncello photo

As the Pennsylvania General Assembly gets set to debate legislation related to the state’s nuclear power industry, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is not just an academic policy conversation. It’s about the fate of thousands of workers and the economic vitality of the communities they have called home for generations.

The commonwealth’s five nuclear power plants are not only an environmentally friendly, zero-carbon emissions energy source that is arguably an irreplaceable means to keep the lights on, but, equally important, they are responsible for 16,000 jobs and contribute billions in economic activity and tax revenue that is used to fund our schools, hospitals, road repairs and much more.

That’s why it makes sense to update the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (AEPS) to include nuclear power. The AEPS was created in 2004 to foster economic development and encourage reliance on more diverse and environmentally friendly sources of energy. Sixteen forms of energy production like solar, wind and low-impact hydro are already covered by the law.

But despite its enormous positive impact on the economy and the environment, nuclear power was not included in the original law. Now we have a chance to correct that omission with a bill recently introduced in the House — the Keep Powering Pennsylvania Act — that would make nuclear a clean energy qualifying resource.

Critics of any government spending, and we know there are plenty, have raised issues with this proposal, but it’s a winning investment strategy — one that is critical to keeping the nuclear plants operating and thousands of Pennsylvania residents working. For example, at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant, there are more than 600 employees whose families rely on the benefits of keeping such plants open.

York County Commissioner Chris Reilly

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President Trump’s energy czar, Secretary Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who is hardly considered a tax-and-spender, recently said of nuclear that if he were the Pennsylvania governor, he’d be inclined to “try to keep a job creator in business and to help them be innovative on how you put the program together.”

Perry was right when he also said that there are “wise” conversations to be had about whether “there are industries in our state that are worth subsidizing, supporting.”

Nuclear is one of those industries worth supporting.

The clock is ticking and if nothing is done by June, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant will prematurely close, as announced, this September. The Beaver Valley nuclear plant will prematurely close in 2021. And others will face early closures in the near future.

Letting that happen would be a devastating blow to the economy, to the tune of $4.6 billion annually. And for homeowners and businesses, power rates will soar with the loss of the five plants that currently produce 40 percent of the commonwealth’s total energy.

The $4.6 billion benefit the nuclear plants provide is eight times more than the bill would cost taxpayers. And, proving again it’s a worthwhile investment, the nuclear plants in the program would commit to operating for at least another six years — something no other technologies under AEPS have promised.

It also makes environmental sense to act. Gov. Tom Wolf announced a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2026 and 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. That will be impossible without ensuring the nuclear plants survive. They are currently responsible for 93 percent of Pennsylvania’s zero carbon electricity and emit no harmful pollutants.

Closure of the nuclear plants would force a reliance on more fossil fuels, not less. The gas companies oppose the bill because they stand to make money if nuclear plants go away.

A fading nuclear industry would mean the natural gas interests stand to enhance their own bottom lines since there is not yet enough renewable energy to make up for the loss of power the nuclear plants provide. 

Our neighbors in New Jersey and New York recognized the economic damage the closure of nuclear plants would cause and found a way to make sure that didn’t happen. Connecticut and Illinois have also all taken steps to protect their nuclear power plants, recognizing their importance to the economy and environment.

Pennsylvania needs to follow their lead and support an industry that provides jobs for tens of thousands of families while also playing a key role in the maintenance and growth of our emissions free economy.

— Chris Reilly is a York County commissioner and co-chair of Clean Jobs for Pa. Coalition.