The nation’s nuclear power industry is having a tough time.  Just like the coal companies, it’s struggling amid slowing demand for electricity, and competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy. That’s why the industry has been turning to state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s, for help.

There are about 100 commercial nuclear reactors licensed to operate. Link to a full list.
(source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

“Nobody’s in the mood for a bailout,” says Eric Epstein, a longtime anti-nuclear activist. He’s walking around the Amtrak station in Harrisburg with a big poster of the iconic image of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, and saying, “I want you to stop the bailout of nuclear power in Pennsylvania.” Epstein’s group, Three Mile Island Alert, formed shortly before one of the plant’s reactors partially melted down in 1979– bringing the industry’s growth in the U.S. to a standstill. Almost four decades later, he says nuclear is just too expensive, and he doesn’t want his state to do what New York and Illinois already have.  Those states gave billions in subsidies to the nuclear industry by essentially broadening the definition of clean power to include nuclear. Now, the nuclear industry’s ramped up its lobbying in several other states–including Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut– and Harrisburg.

“Pennsylvania now is the battlefront,” says Epstein.

Pennsylvania’s five nuclear plants supply about a third of the state’s electricity. Around the country, five plants have retired in the past five years, and another five are scheduled to close within a decade. The Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg is having trouble selling its power because it’s more expensive than other options like natural gas.

“We are not anti-nuclear. However, they’ve got to play by the same rules as every other energy source.”

John Kotek is with the trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. He argues the market doesn’t properly value all the benefits nuclear power brings to the table. “The system we have today is designed around ‘how do I deliver the cheapest megawatt hour of electricity in the next hour?,” says Kotek. “Without reflection of the environmental impacts, for example or the importance of fuel supply diversity or reliability.”

But the bailouts are facing opposition from competing power producers, especially the natural gas industry. Stephanie Catarino Wissman heads the Pennsylvania division of the American Petroleum Institute. Her group is part of a new coalition opposing nuclear bailouts. It includes gas trade groups, manufacturers, and the AARP. They argue the subsidies are unfair, and will lead to higher energy bills. “We are not anti-nuclear,” she says. “We feel they’re an important part of the energy mix. However, they’ve got to play by the same rules as every other energy source.”

Environmental groups are divided.  They care about climate change and have supported subsidies for renewables. While a nuclear plant may not emit carbon dioxide, Jackson Morris, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says nuclear power is neither clean nor renewable.

“We do recognize that it does have low-carbon attributes, but it’s by no means on the same playing field as truly renewable resources– like wind, solar, and energy efficiency,” he says.

The NRDC has been willing to go along with nuclear bailouts before, but only when they also included more support for renewables.

In Pennsylvania there is no proposed legislation out yet, but a bipartisan Nuclear Energy Caucus has formed.  Lawmakers have started the process of holding meetings and gathering information about the best way to move forward. They’re widely expected to take some action this year to support the state’s nuclear power industry.