Nuclear power is one of the leading sources of low carbon electricity, yet it receives no credit for this in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State has five nuclear power plants that provide one-third of the state’s electricity and 93 percent of its low carbon electricity.
Nuclear power plants are also the state’s most-reliable sources of electricity, operating more than 90 percent of the time. Yet these electricity workhorses are under enormous financial pressure and may be forced to shut down despite being in good working condition due to competition from low-priced natural gas and subsidies for wind and solar power.
The shale gas revolution has brought many benefits to Pennsylvania in the form of increased employment, tax revenues and a domestic source of clean fuels that is used in a variety of industries. But it would be unwise to allow the success of the natural gas industry to cannibalize the neighboring nuclear power industry. It is important to maximize employment and domestic energy production, not simply trade one successful industry for another.
New York has recently recognized the value that nuclear power provides the state in the form of reliable, emissions-free electricity. New York’s new clean energy standard levels the playing field by ensuring nuclear plants receive the same encouragement provided to wind and solar. New York’s clean power plan will allow existing nuclear power plants to continue operating as long as they are in good operating condition. Leadership in Pennsylvania would do well to study New York’s efforts and find a comparable method to support the existing nuclear power plants currently operating in the state.
Nationwide, a dozen plants or more face potential premature closure in the face of mounting financial pressures. Exelon Corp., which operates the nation’s largest fleet of nuclear power plants including three in Pennsylvania, recently announced plans to shutter two plants with 1,500 total workers in Illinois after the company lost $700 million in the last few years and state lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would support the plants. Exelon had also announced plans to shut down two plants in New York, but plans were reversed after New York came through with the clean energy standard this summer.
The federal government is committed to reducing carbon emissions that cause climate change. Several government agencies calculate the “social cost of carbon” to provide a meaningful estimate of the costs in business terms of carbon pollution. A federal appeals court recently upheld the Obama administration’s accounting of the social cost of carbon at $36 per metric ton and New York used this measurement in calculating its financial support for nuclear power in the clean energy standard.
If today’s nuclear power plants were properly valued for the emissions-free power they provide they could continue to operate safely for decades. These plants also provide much-needed employment and tax revenues in rural communities and represent billions of dollars in infrastructure investment that must be replaced if the plants are closed. Losing our existing nuclear plants prematurely will make the transition to a sustainable, clean energy future far more challenging and expensive. Pennsylvania’s state leadership should look for viable methods to reward the nuclear power industry for the critical role it plays in creating clean electrical power for the country.