Commentary: Nuclear plants need to be part of Pa. energy mix

The cooling towers of the Limerick nuclear power plant in Montgomery County. Nuclear plants supply 37.3 percent of the state's electricity.

The General Assembly should pass legislation to save Pennsylvania's nuclear power plants from premature retirement. We can't afford to write off nine nuclear units that play a crucial role in the sustainability of the state's electric system.

Those who are determined to shut down nuclear power plants, which generate 37.3 percent of the state's electricity, seem to disregard the economic and environmental consequences of their actions. Critics of nuclear energy who look to natural gas as a replacement fuel ignore the fact that there is no guarantee that gas will remain cheap. Gas has a history of wild swings in price.

Nor are renewable sources the answer to Pennsylvania's energy needs. While wind and solar energy have a role in providing supplementary energy in some locations, the energy is far too diluted and variable to provide - 24 hours a day every day - the prodigious amounts of base-load electricity needed for our economy.

A study done by the Brattle Group in 2015 determined that Pennsylvania cannot afford to risk the consequences of closing existing nuclear plants, which contribute $2.36 billion to the state gross domestic product, account for 15,600 direct and indirect jobs, help keep electricity prices low, and generate $81 million in state tax revenue.

Without nuclear energy, Pennsylvania's economy would rely more heavily on existing and new gas and coal generating plants. The share of generation from gas plants would increase from 19 percent to 36 percent, and the share from coal plants would increase from 38 percent to 52 percent. The greater use of new fossil generation would mean higher electricity prices for households and businesses. It would also result in much higher emissions of pollutants, which are linked to premature deaths from heart and lung disease, and an additional 52 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

We face a double threat - one to our hard-won gains in improved air quality and clear skies, and the other to our economy and security.

The question is whether the state can implement policies to ensure that nuclear plants don't shut down prematurely due to pressure from low-cost natural gas and highly subsidized wind and solar plants. A group of state legislators recently announced the formation of a 70-member Nuclear Energy Caucus that will seek to preserve the nuclear industry.

At stake is more than just the production of nuclear electricity. Pennsylvania is home to more than 500 companies working in nuclear energy. Unless prompt action is taken, the state could lose its only base-load source of clean electricity. And it is our most dependable source.

Over the past three years, Pennsylvania's nine nuclear power plant units produced electricity on average more than 93 percent of the time, a far higher rate of production than either natural gas plants or solar and wind power.

The first step toward sensible energy policy is to face reality. The Brattle Group study found that Pennsylvania consumers would spend almost $600 million per year more on electricity absent nuclear plants. Through 2024, the total increased cost would rise to more than $5 billion. The economic impact from higher electricity costs would fall heaviest on utilities, manufacturers, and the construction industry.

Our nation can't seem to agree on the value of this reliable supply of carbon-free electricity. In the past two years, six safe and efficient nuclear plants elsewhere have been closed due largely to an abundance of cheap natural gas, and an additional seven nuclear plants are slated to be retired prematurely in the next few years. The Department of Energy has said we have not been valuing nuclear power's benefits enough.

There are reasonable solutions to this predicament. Illinois recognized the value of nuclear power by correcting distortions in the state's deregulated electricity market. To keep three of its nuclear plants operating, it created a "zero emissions standard," which allows the state to purchase zero-carbon energy credits from nuclear plants that, in turn, level the playing field between nuclear power and natural gas in the electricity market. New York State has adopted a similar solution.

These examples provide a potential path forward for Pennsylvania lawmakers. Attaching a value to our nuclear power plant's substantial benefits makes sense. It seems impossible to envision our state's economy and environment remaining healthy for long without them.

Forrest J. Remick is emeritus professor of nuclear engineering and emeritus associate vice president for research at Pennsylvania State University and a retired commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.