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Fight brewing over prospect of nuclear power plant shutdowns

Pennsylvania lawmakers sympathetic to nuclear power plants are making a push for state action to rescue plants whose shutdown is being threatened by their energy company owners

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania lawmakers sympathetic to nuclear power plants are making a push for state action to rescue plants at risk of being shut down by their energy company owners.

Four lawmakers calling themselves the Nuclear Energy Caucus released a 44-page report Thursday, calling for action to avoid plants shutting down and warning that shutdowns would devastate communities that depend on the plants' jobs and property taxes.

The prospect of bailing out nuclear power plants is spurring a debate over why Pennsylvania ratepayers should foot the cost and whether nuclear power provides an environmental benefit in the age of global warming.

Three Mile Island's owner, Chicago-based Exelon Corp., announced last year that the plant that was the site of a terrifying partial meltdown in 1979 will close in 2019 unless Pennsylvania comes to its financial rescue. Earlier this year, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. said it will shut down its Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania — as well as two nuclear plants in Ohio — within the next three years unless Pennsylvania steps up.

Proposals in the report include requiring utilities to buy a certain amount of nuclear power or imposing a fee on carbon emissions, ideas designed to make the cost of nuclear power more competitive as it faces pressure from a booming natural gas industry.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat whose home is barely 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Three Mile Island, said in a statement from his office that he is concerned about layoffs at the power plants. While he gave no promises about what he would support, he coupled that sentiment with his desire to advance the cause of cleaner energy.

"Governor Wolf believes we need a robust conversation about our energy economy and looks forward to engaging with the General Assembly about what direction Pennsylvania will go in regards to its energy sector, including the future of nuclear power and the value of lower emission energy for Pennsylvania's economy and environment," Wolf's office said.

Nuclear power plants are being buffeted by a flood of natural gas plants coming online, relatively flat post-recession electricity demand and states putting more emphasis on renewable energy and efficiency.

PJM Interconnection, which operates the electric grid covering Pennsylvania and the 65 million people from Illinois east to Washington, says those four nuclear power plant closings — two in Pennsylvania and two in Ohio — won't affect the availability of electricity.

"We have studied that and analyzed that and yes, we will maintain reliability," said Stu Bressler, PJM's senior vice president for operations and markets.

The prospect of a bailout is drawing opposition from large industrial electricity users, ratepayer advocates, the natural gas industry, the AARP, the National Federation of Independent Business and anti-nuclear power activists.

Pennsylvania is the nation's No. 2 nuclear power state. The owners of its five nuclear power plants — primarily Exelon, FirstEnergy and Allentown-based Talen Energy — are part of a coalition backing Thursday's report that includes labor unions and some local chambers of commerce, including the Philadelphia-area chamber.

A push for a carbon tax could be aided by some environmental groups, which are pressing for such a concept in Pennsylvania. Illinois, New York and New Jersey have approved subsidies in the past two years to bail out nuclear plants, assembling compromise packages that brought environmental or ratepayer groups on board by advancing renewable energy or energy efficiency goals.

The caucus' report suggests that other nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania could start losing money and face premature shutdowns.