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Industry pitch for saving Davis-Besse, other nukes is focused on climate change

By Tom Henry • Apr 6, 2019 at 4:00 PM

The fate of five Ohio and Pennsylvania nuclear plants — including Davis-Besse in northwest Ohio’s Ottawa County — could come down to whether the nuclear industry succeeds in convincing Republican-led state legislatures to embrace climate change, an issue many Americans closely associate with Democrats.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, became more aggressive in branding nuclear power as an effective weapon against climate change several years ago, citing the emissions-free benefit that nuclear plants have over fossil fuel-burning plants and the enormous power output they have in comparison to emerging wind and solar projects.

That marketing pitch was the central theme of a 40-minute, annual state-of-the-industry presentation Tuesday by NEI Chief Executive Officer Maria Korsnick, especially when she turned her attention to FirstEnergy Solutions’ plans to shutter its Davis-Besse plant east of Toledo; its Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland, and its Beaver Valley complex west of Pittsburgh, which hosts two plants. The fifth scheduled for early retirement is Exelon’s Three Mile Island Unit 1 near Harrisburg, Pa.

"If they don't preserve those plants, it will create a very significant [power] deficit that will be hard to overcome," Ms. Korsnick said, referring to the Ohio and Pennsylvania plants scheduled to be shuttered over the next few years. Davis-Besse would be the first of those five, closing for good no later than May 31, 2020, unless a buyer or bailout emerges soon.

Davis-Besse and Perry generate only a portion of Ohio’s total electricity in a landscape that is changing constantly with more plants powered by natural gas coming online, dirty coal plants being retired, and wind and solar projects being developed.

But the NEI maintains those two nuclear plants still produce 90 percent of Ohio’s power that is considered emissions-free.

Nuclear plants — like wind and solar plants — produce climate-altering carbon emissions as they’re being manufactured, and the process of mining uranium to fuel nuclear plants is energy-intensive. But none of those plants emit carbon dioxide while operating.

Davis-Besse employs 700 people. Both Oak Harbor and Carroll Township have enjoyed more stability than other areas because the plant — until recently— generated $20 million a year in tax revenue for Ottawa County, of which $12.1 million went to the school district.

Those figures shrank dramatically last fall when FirstEnergy Corp., in a cost-cutting move staunchly opposed by local officials, convinced the Ohio Department of Taxation to devalue Davis-Besse for taxing purposes nearly 75 percent.

In her speech, Ms. Korsnick appealed to lawmakers nationally to help rescue plants in danger of premature closures.

“Saving nuclear plants is not a bailout,” Ms. Korsnick said. “It's valuing efficiency.”

FirstEnergy Corp. and American Electric Power previously got the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to approve a $4 billion plan to buy more time for struggling nuclear and coal-fired power plants.

But in 2016 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that plan was illegal.

Ohio has done little on the issue since then. But it appears there are new discussions about a rescue bill in the works, although nothing has been introduced yet.

On Feb. 1, Ohio Rep. Larry Householder (R., Glenford) said shortly after being installed as the newest Ohio House of Representatives speaker that he supports efforts to save Ohio’s two nuclear plants. He said at the time he also recognizes the narrow window of time to get a rescue plan in place.

But so far, lawmakers have been reluctant to enact customer subsidies or force a captive market for the plants’ more expensive power.

Guy Parmigian, superintendent of the Benton-Carroll-Salem school district that has been supported significantly by Davis-Besse tax revenue since the nuclear plant went online in 1977, also said recently the selection of Mr. Householder as that legislative chamber’s speaker has given him hope. But he also said he remains nervous because time is running out for Davis-Besse.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on March 11 that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is now considering a bill, House Bill 11, that could keep Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants operating for at least a half-dozen more years at a cost of $500 million a year.

Ms. Korsnick said she is confident she has the support of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who she said has gone on the record for wanting to help address climate change. She said his administration will be important to wooing support from other Republicans in the Ohio legislature.

Dan Tierney, Mr. DeWine’s press secretary, was not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, the nuclear sector produces about 18 percent of America’s electricity and 55 percent of its emissions-free power.

America’s current operating fleet of 98 nuclear reactors is down from 104 a few years ago.

Twelve more plants are scheduled to close nationally in the next few years, collectively generating enough power for 8.6 million homes, Ms. Korsnick said.

President Trump, who has said repeatedly he does not believe the science behind climate change, ordered his Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, to come up with a plan to save struggling nuclear and coal-fired power plants last June. No plan has emerged yet.

A national watchdog group often critical of nuclear power, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, recently issued a report stating the nation’s historically safest and best-run plants should be kept operating to help fight climate change. Davis-Besse, which had numerous safety and reporting violations in years past, did not make that group’s list of preferred plants.

Ms. Korsnick lauded the UCS for supporting nuclear plants on the climate change issue. She said growing concerns about climate change have led to support from other groups and businesses that a few years ago would have been unexpected.

E & E News reported on Feb. 8 that the Green New Deal proposed by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a longtime nuclear critic, and freshman congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) initially did not include nuclear. The publication cited a fact sheet on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’ website, which later was revised.

Mr. Markey, cited by Ms. Korsnick as one of the nuclear industry’s newest and more unlikely allies, later told reporters the Green New Deal is meant to be technology-neutral, suggesting that nuclear could still be on the table.

Later in February, co-authors of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the value of nuclear power nationally and internationally told the Ohio House Energy and Natural Resources Committee it would be a mistake to let more plants shut down prematurely.

Chicago-based Exelon’s Three Mile Island Unit 1 plant is separate from Three Mile Island Unit 2 plant, the one that experienced America’s worst nuclear accident, a half-core meltdown 40 years ago in March, 1979. That unit had a different owner.

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