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Pennsylvania residents shouldn't bear cost of propping up nuclear industry

What we have in the current environment are mature industries that are big businesses that want government to intervene to artificially protect their market share.

Two cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown.
Two cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown.Read moreAssociated Press file photo

Add a new name to the list of groups coming hat-in-hand looking for financial help from Harrisburg: the nuclear power industry.

No bills have been introduced yet, but the industry seems intent on asking for tax breaks or tax credits in Pennsylvania, along the lines of the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies recently granted in New York state and Illinois.

A leader in the movement is Exelon Corp., which operates three of Pennsylvania's five nuclear plants. In other states, the industry sought and won "zero-emission credits" arguing, that much like wind and solar power, nuclear plants produce clean, carbon-free energy.

Recently, a group of state legislators – many with nuclear plants in their districts – formed a Nuclear Energy Caucus to promote the industry's cause in Harrisburg.

In New York, the industry got the Legislature to approve a zero-emission credit worth $500 million a year – to be paid by ratepayers, though the new law is being challenged in court.

Much like coal, nuclear power has a problem: It is losing out to competition with natural gas, which is plentiful and cheaper.

We don't believe taxpayers should be asked to subsidize industries that can't compete in the open market.

We realize that subsidies are part of the political landscape, especially in the energy sector. The government has given subsidies and grants to encourage growth of new industries – wind and solar got such subsidies in their early days. But the theory behind those breaks was that once those industries reached a larger scale, they could fend for themselves.

What's different now is that we have mature industries that are big businesses – and we include coal on this list – that want government to intervene to artificially protect their market share. Even with actions taken by the Trump administration to help the coal industry, most economists believe use of coal will continue to decline because it remains both "dirty" and expensive.

Is the situation in the nuclear industry different? No one is predicting a sudden or even long-term demand for nuclear power in this country. Utilities aren't building new plants, in the same way they are not building new coal-fired plants. Demand for electricity generally has been flat since the Great Recession.

That means that subsidies given today could end up becoming permanent price supports – for the industry's bottom line.

We also dispute that nuclear is a clean fuel. It certainly does not emit carbon, and that is a great strength. But accidents can have devastating long-term effects, especially if there are widespread nuclear emissions, as happened in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 and Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986.

Another problem is nuclear waste. Even if a plant shuts down, the waste must be stored on-site – another potential risk to the environment.

Ironically, if any Pennsylvania nuclear plant will be shut down within the next few years, it is likely to be the one at Three Mile Island.

The 1979 accident at TMI resulted in a partial meltdown that rendered one of the reactors permanently inoperable.  Now the forces of change and the rise of natural gas may make the other reactor expendable, an antique from another era no longer needed today. We can't afford to collect antiques.