HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (AP) – Four decades after Three Mile Island became the shortcut to the worst US nuclear accident, financial rescue from nuclear power plants is attracting the highest levels of government.
In Pennsylvania, nuclear power plant owners have been working for two years to strengthen support for types of financial packages already approved by New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Meanwhile, these offers have sparked legal appeals to the US Supreme Court and a debate among federal energy regulators on protecting taxpayers from rising electricity prices.
Pennsylvania is preparing to decide whether it will help its state's nuclear power plants.
"Whatever Pennsylvania does will be subject to some political and legal uncertainty," said Christina Simeone, director of policy and external affairs at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
The aging and declining nuclear fleet is being disrupted by a flood of natural gas plants entering competitive electricity markets, a relatively stable demand for electricity after the recession, and the states putting more emphasis on renewable energies and energy efficiency.
The pursuit of state guarantees has raised many questions as to why taxpayers should bear the cost of shutting down nuclear power plants and whether nuclear energy provides an essential environmental benefit. in the era of global warming.
In 2017, the spotlight moved to Pennsylvania, the second largest nuclear state in the country.
It was at that time that the proprietor of Chicago-based Three Mile Island, Exelon Corp., announced that he would close the factory which was the site of a partial collapse. terrifying in 1979, unless Pennsylvania comes to its rescue. The closing date has been set for 30 September.
Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp., also announced that it would close its Beaver Valley nuclear facility in western Pennsylvania, as well as two nuclear power plants in Ohio, within three years, unless Pennsylvania agrees.
Until now, no rescue has been enshrined in legislation.
The sympathetic legislators have instead issued a broadly worded memo stating that they will enact legislation to give Pennsylvania's nuclear power plants the same preferential treatment as solar power, wind power and a handful of solar power. other sources of niche energy received under a 2004 law.
The owners of the five Pennsylvania nuclear plants – mainly Exelon, FirstEnergy and Talen Energy, based in Allentown – support this effort.
PJM Interconnection, which operates the electrical grid covering Pennsylvania and the 65 million inhabitants of Illinois in Washington, said that these four nuclear plant closures – two in Pennsylvania and two in Ohio – are the only ones in the world. will not affect the availability of electricity.
But, this past summer, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in a 3-2 decision, ordered PJM to come up with a solution to protect the competitive market from what it describes as a dangerous cascade of pressure on States to support otherwise viable plants.
In October, PJM launched the idea that, if adopted, it could create new dilemmas, especially for nuclear power plant owners.
"At this point, are they going back into the state to ask for more? Maybe," said Glen Thomas, a Pennsylvania-based consultant specializing in utility regulations. "Do they go bankrupt because they do not have enough income? Perhaps. Will this eliminate the market price for other producers? Definitely. It will certainly create problems. "
The US Supreme Court will take appeals in lawsuits involving grants to New York and Illinois nuclear plants, lawyers said in response to the cases.
But the FERC's action is still imminent and it's unclear when and how the commissioners will react.
Exelon said Pennsylvania needed to pass a law by June 1 if it wanted to continue operating Three Mile Island, with fuel to be ordered months in advance.
Governor Tom Wolf has not taken a stand on the rescue of Pennsylvania's nuclear power plants – although his administration suggests that their continued operation would help reduce Pennsylvania's greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades – and none of the greatest lawmakers.
Meanwhile, unions, business associations, taxpayers' advocates, AARP, environmental groups, anti-nuclear activists and Pennsylvania's large natural gas industry are being swept away.
"FERC has created all this uncertainty," said Miles Farmer, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council based in Washington, DC. "We do not know exactly how customers will be protected and it's very difficult for states to put in place their programs when they do not know how the rules will work."