Bipartisan caucus calls for Pennsylvania to take action

04 December 2018

Nuclear energy in Pennsylvania is at a crossroads, according to a newly released report from a bipartisan group of state legislators. The state must avert nuclear plant closures or suffer job loss, community disruption, and higher electricity prices, the Pennsylvania Nuclear Energy Caucus (NEC) said.

Senator Ryan Aument at the report launch (Image: Pennsylvania NEC)

The Pennsylvania NEC - the first of its kind in the USA - was set up in March 2017 to give members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly an opportunity to become more educated about nuclear energy's importance to the state. Co-chaired by Senators Ryan Aument and John Yudichak and Representatives Becky Corbin and Rob Matize, the NEC now has over 75 members. Its Bicameral Nuclear Energy Caucus Report, which was published on 29 November, sets out the nuclear energy industry's contribution to the state's energy portfolio, economy, and environment and identifies options to determine the future of Pennsylvania's nuclear plants.

Pennsylvania is home to nine nuclear reactors at five power plants - Beaver Valley, Limerick, Peach Bottom, Susquehanna and Three Mile Island - which together produce nearly 40% of Pennsylvania's total electricity generation and just over 93% of its zero-emissions energy, the report notes. The report also found the nuclear plants contribute USD2 billion annually to Pennsylvania's economy as well as helping moderate electricity prices, improving air quality and ensuring grid resilience. However, Exelon in May 2017 announced that its single Three Mile Island unit will retire prematurely in September 2019, and FirstEnergy earlier this year announced plans to prematurely retire the two-unit Beaver Valley plant in 2021.

Aument said the premature closures of Three Mile Island and Beaver Valley - which together represent a quarter of Pennsylvania's nuclear power - would be a "devastating and permanent blow" to the state's communities, economy, and environment. "As state lawmakers, we take seriously our obligations to set energy policies that help promote Pennsylvania's economy and protect our environment … so we took a hard look at what could and should be done to prevent this, and future, devastation," he said.

The NEC sought to determine if the General Assembly or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should undertake any actions to prevent the premature closures. After considering the current federal, regional, and state landscape it identified four options: take no action, and allow the early retirements to go ahead; modify the state's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (AEPS) or a zero-emission credits (ZEC) programme to put nuclear generation on equal footing with Pennsylvania's other zero-emission electric generation resources; modify the AEPS or establish a ZEC programme with a so-called "safety valve" mechanism allowing the state to independently procure some of its capacity from specific state-preferred generation resources and rather than the PJM capacity market; and establish a state carbon pricing programme.

"It's clear to me that only some of the report's options are viable for preventing irreversible harm to Pennsylvania's communities, economy, and environment associated with losing nuclear power plants," Corbin said. "Pennsylvania lawmakers will have to act soon if we want to protect our consumers and the nuclear industry because policymakers and regulators in Washington DC have failed to address growing, long-standing flaws in energy markets."

"Given our state's prominence in energy production, it is important that lawmakers focus on an inclusive energy policy that promotes and respects the contribution that each resource offers. The NEC looks forward to continuing the dialogue with our colleagues in the General Assembly in the coming weeks and months," said Yudichak. "But time is not on our side. Pennsylvanians - especially those whose livelihood depends on nuclear energy - are looking to us for action."

The report will be transmitted to all members of the Pennsylvania's General Assembly as well as the state's governor.

US nuclear plants, particularly those operating in deregulated markets, have found themselves facing economic challenges from the short-term nature of the competitive market, coupled with competition from low-cost gas and federally subsidised wind power. A number of states, including New York, Illinois and New Jersey, have taken or are considering taking action to preserve values of nuclear energy that are not recognised in the markets.

The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission earlier this year launched a proceeding to "holistically" examine the resilience of the US grid system after terminating a proposed rulemaking from US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry on grid resilience and reliability, which would have recognised the attributes of generation sources able to store fuel on site including nuclear. US President Donald Trump in August directed Perry to take immediate action to stop the loss of "fuel-secure power facilities" from the country's power grid, including nuclear power plants that are facing premature retirement.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News