Carbon reductions can be met with renewables without propping up old nukes
By Maureen Mulligan
As members of Three Mile Island Alert, a watchdog group, we are resolutely opposed to the present attempts by utilities in Pennsylvania and Ohio to secure huge subsidies to keep their aging and financially failing nuclear power plants operational well beyond their “expiration dates”. Such a decision would have national implications. The diversion of billions of dollars into nuclear subsidies would distort markets and state regulatory decisions and result in lower investment in renewable resources and energy efficiency. This in turn would prolong the uneconomic existence of a resource that is not clean energy.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, in its new report, argues that the trajectories of existing renewable energy and efficiency standards are insufficient to prevent a dangerous increase in CO2 emissions, and that a price on carbon could serve to better mitigate carbon emissions as long as nuclear reactors remain operational.
This latter requirement is roundly contradicted by reports over the last several years that show that, even in Pennsylvania, a state with one of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rates, GHG reduction goals can be met under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan targets through planned power plant retirements.
Nuclear power is a well-funded, controversial industry that embodies hazards at all points along its fuel cycle. There is no room for both renewable energy development and continued, subsidized operation of nuclear power plants.
UCS proffers the notion that a subsidy for both nuclear and renewables will cause “all boats to rise”, but this has not played out in our state of Pennsylvania and it is unlikely to be the case in the future. If Pennsylvanians are forced to foot the bill for these plants, many of which are already 45 years old, we will be perpetuating uneconomic plants at the expense of newer, cleaner, safer technology options.
In addition, if nuclear power plants continue to be the beneficiary of bailouts time and time again, this distorts free markets and sends mixed signals to investors as to whether or not to consider new nuclear power projects.
Further, both Pennsylvania and Ohio have time to develop renewable energy. For example, Pennsylvania is in the final stages of completing a “Solar Future’s Plan”, finding that Pennsylvania can support up to 10% solar by 2030.
Pending legislation supports increasing our Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is in the advanced stages of developing alternative ratemaking rules that could support further development of renewable energy/energy efficiency.
The Governor recently signed into law Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy legislation making financing of these projects easier. Bi-partisan legislation is pending to remove our two percent cap on mandated utility energy efficiency spending.
In addition, energy grid manager PJM’s current reserve margin is 28%. By PJM’s own staff analysis, a 15.8% reserve margin is acceptable, meaning that the planned retirements of aging nuclear plants have no impact on electric reliability. As recently as October 11, 2018, PJM CEO Andy Ott — speaking before the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — emphasized the importance of fuel diversity for grid resilience and warned against distorting energy markets through government subsidies.
We should permit the forces of economics and technology to phase out the oldest and most dangerous nuclear plants, as we would with any outdated technology, and invest in the future which is clean energy jobs and the economic development that accompanies growth.
The two plants in Pennsylvania likely to be subsidized — Three Mile Island and Beaver Valley — harbor a growing, on-site nuclear waste storage inventory, which would be curtailed if these two plants close as anticipated. The volumes involved are far beyond anything envisioned when the plants were constructed. No safe, permanent storage solution has been found for high-level radioactive waste.
We also have to consider safety issues when considering where to spend ratepayer money. There is a history of missteps and errors at the two Pennsylvania nuclear plants that will continue with extended plant operations. Each of these facilities presents risks to local populations.
On-site security at plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania have a history of safety breaches that are often kept away from public scrutiny. Such lapses make continued nuclear power plant operation a dangerous gamble. Indeed, all along the fuel chain, nuclear power poses risks we no longer need to take as society advances into next generation energy solutions.
Our organization is fully supportive of the need for a comprehensive carbon reduction plan, but we do not support trading one dirty energy source for another. Until we solve the nuclear waste challenge, inherent safety issues, and transport risks, we must remain focused on truly clean, safe energy solutions, meaningful worker protections and realistic job re-training options. Proposed nuclear subsidies stand in the way of such progress.
Maureen Mulligan, owner of Sustainable Futures Communications, is a volunteer and member of the Three Mile Island Alert Steering Committee.
Headline photo of Three Mile Island by JL Johnson for Creative Commons.