Bailout for nukes? Not in this lifetime. | Editorial

The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa.

With little fanfare and no protests, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission last week began removing the emergency call boxes that have been part of the landscape of the toll road since 1988.

The commission says the bright-yellow boxes, set at one-mile intervals along the 550-mile highway, are no longer needed. As proof, the commission notes that 18,571 calls were made from the boxes in 2000; only 772 were made last year.

The wireless phone has made the call boxes obsolete.

Meanwhile, 10 miles south of turnpike headquarters outside Harrisburg sits another – through much larger – obsolete item: the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant.

Unit 2 has been down since 1979, the year of the famous accident at the plant.  But Unit 1 is still humming along, producing electric power that no one particularly wants – not at the price Exelon, the plant’s owner, must charge.

Nuclear plants are expensive to operate.  TMI, for instance, has 675 employees.

The power it produces is more expensive than electricity generated by other fuels, particularly natural gas, which is cheap and abundant.  As a result, TMI has lost out in the wholesale electricity market, which each year holds competitive auctions to purchase electricity for the regional electric grid.

Exelon says TMI has lost $300 million in the last five years. It also says it will shut down the plant in 2019 – unless the state intervenes to aid the industry. The industry’s preferred method would be to get tax credits for nuclear power, which it considers a “clean” fuel because it does not emit any pollutants to choke the atmosphere.

Others have said that subsidizing one industry over another is not fair and that perhaps the legislature should consider a “carbon tax” on power generators that use fossil fuel.

Either way, it will cost ratepayers, because the credits – which amount to subsidies – will be tacked onto their electric bills.

The nuclear power industry is far more powerful than call box producers.  Exelon says the demise of TMI
will mean a hit to the region’s economy.  The plant has a $60 million payroll and also pays local taxes. Shut it down and all that goes away.

Those arguments persuaded legislators in New York and Illinois to pass laws allowing for zero-emission credits for nuclear plants in their states.

It’s never pleasant to be on the losing end of the free market, and politicians usually are happy to offer subsidies – if those losers are large enough. The rest of us aren’t even allowed in the line.

We are not against government subsidies but believe they should be targeted to foster emerging industries (such as wind and solar power) and not ones that are obsolete.  There’s that word again.

The yellow call boxes are coming down because no one uses them – and that situation will not change.

The same is true of nuclear power. The odds are we won’t be subsidizing the nuclear power industry until a better day arrives – because a better day is not coming.

Any subsidy is likely to last as long as the nuclear fuel locked inside TMI, which is close to forever.

We can’t afford forever.