It would be interesting to see the reaction of Lewis L. Strauss, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, to the $500 million bailout of Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants that a handful of state legislators proposed last week. In 1954, Strauss famously predicted nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” We are finding out he might as well have added that “one size fits all,” and “the check is in the mail.”
Nuclear power has always been more costly than other types of generation. The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s saw mistakes, cost overruns, and accidents. Time and time again, the utilities, which owned nuclear plants, sought rate increases, forcing consumers to pay for the industries’ mistakes. Granting ever-growing rate increases was the first bailout for nuclear power.
The costs and dangers of building and operating nuclear power plants have been exceptionally high. (There have been four major nuclear power plant accidents in the United States). After Pennsylvania restructured the electric industry in 1997, the government handed over billions of dollars to nuclear plant owners to cover their industry’s bad investments — the second bailout.
Now the companies who bought the nuclear power plants are unhappy with their decisions, saying the investment isn’t making as much they want. The industry has asked Pennsylvania legislators to place a surcharge on everyone’s electric bill. Consumers, the utilities argue, should be forced to pay for the companies’ poor investments. They are seeking a third bailout.
Groups representing consumers and seniors are not having it, urging legislators to vote against raising everyone’s electric bill so a handful of corporations can increase their profits.
Apologists for the nuclear industry counter by saying consumers must be surcharged for the good of the environment and to save jobs and money in the long run. Both arguments fall into the “too cheap to meter” category of unjustified optimism.
Nuclear power is not renewable. It relies upon uranium mining that pollutes, irradiates, and causes devastation to what were once pristine areas, leaving deadly waste behind. The uranium has to be processed, leaving behind dangerous by-products. The few regulations in place to stop the worst practices were rolled back by Trump’s EPA in October.
Many environmental advocacy groups in Pennsylvania — including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Air Council, PennEnvironment, Keystone Progress, Clean Water Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility Philadelphia/Pennsylvania, and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania — oppose the bailout. The groups issued a statement saying: “Pennsylvanians need and deserve a forward-thinking, long-term strategy to fight climate change and invest in a clean energy economy centered around renewable energy. This legislation does nothing to advance the deployment of renewable energy in Pennsylvania and further locks us into increasingly expensive nuclear power from old and outdated equipment."
As to the argument that we should do something to save good-paying jobs — of course we should. It’s just hard to listen when multinational corporations who lay off workers to increase their profits all of a sudden worry about their employees. In the long term, building renewable energy generators creates more jobs and conservation efforts than what the corporations are threatening to lay off.
The last argument for a third bailout is we need nuclear power to fight global warming. And if that were really our only choice, nuclear power or global warming, it might be worth considering. But it’s not.
The real choice is between surcharging consumers for an old polluting, nonrenewable power source, or focusing on a cost-effective, sustainable, renewable energy future.
As easy as it should be to persuade our elected officials to vote against the expensive, polluting dinosaur and for the future, it will not be. We cannot avoid the reality of campaign contributions and self-interest of those targeted by the nuclear lobby. We must respond with demands: meaningful jobs in conservation and building renewable power sources; affordable electric bills; and having elected officials represent us, our children, and the environment, not the dying nuclear power industry. Two bailouts are more than enough.
Lance Haver is policy director for the PA Save Our Safety Net Coalition. Lance@LanceHaver.com