By Tim Daiss
The United States nuclear industry is in a tough spot. It’s unpopular with the public due to high-profile disasters like 1979’s Three Mile Island meltdown, and its bottom line has been hit hard by the rise of ultra-cheap domestic shale oil and gas as well as a nearly plateaued post-recession demand for electricity. Some states, including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois have approved financial packages to revive their failing nuclear industries, and now Pennsylvania could be the next if they can push past a plague of doubt.
Pennsylvania is a hard sell for nuclear support as the home of the United States’ most famous nuclear disaster at the Three Mile Island site in Dauphin County 40 years ago. The nuclear industry has continued to function, however, in Pennsylvania in the intervening decades–in fact, it’s the second biggest nuclear power state in the country–it hasn’t been until the recent surge of cheap domestic fossil fuels thanks to the boom of production in the Permian Basin that the sector has hit a rough patch that they are unable to surmount on their own.
Even the notorious Three Mile Island plant itself remains in operation today. It has survived four decades of being synonymous with everything that’s wrong with nuclear in the United States, until now. The Chicago-based owner of the plant, Exelon Corp., has announced that the plant will finally be closing its door on September 30th of this year unless the state of Pennsylvania can pull it out of its financial hole. The Three Mile plant would soon be followed by Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in western Pennsylvania and two nuclear plants in Ohio, which Ohio-based owner FirstEnergy Corp. said they will close within the next three years if Pennsylvania can’t pass a financial package to save them. In light of this newfound hardship, over the past few years industry leaders in Pennsylvania have been working diligently to rouse support for a financial package like those approved in other nearby states to keep the floundering industry afloat. While nuclear support packages have been approved in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, the path has not been laid clear for Pennsylvania to follow–those already-approved initiatives have been mired in legal appeals debate between federal energy regulatory authorities, and general outcry against a rise in electricity prices for consumers.
The already-socially-sticky-situation is only made more politically complex by the ongoing litigation surrounding nuclear bailout packages, making the decision to push any such financial package in Pennsylvania a particularly precarious one. “Anything that Pennsylvania does is going to be subject to a degree of policy and legal uncertainty,” said University of Pennsylvania’s Christina Simeone, director of policy and external affairs at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
Further complicating the issue, the contentious and divisive topic of nuclear energy’s future has recently entered the national spotlight with a new fervor thanks to the Democratic party’s newly unveiled Green New Deal. Although the official bill itself makes no mention at all of nuclear (a striking omission in and of itself), a fact sheet released alongside the bill, made public by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, states outright and in no uncertain terms that the Democrats’ Green New Deal “will not include investing in new nuclear power plants.”
The debates on the national stage as well as on a state level, such as what’s happening in Pennsylvania, are indicative of a larger issue: in a world with rising temperatures and populations and declining reserves of traditional fossil fuels, is the United States willing to follow in the footsteps of other world powers and make politically unpopular moves in order to confront our new energy reality? So far, in Pennsylvania at least, the answer seems to be a resounding “we don’t know.”