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Lawmakers debate bill to save nuclear plants

Source: 
Star Beacon

April 23-- Apr. 23--PERRY -- Some officials in the region are hoping an effort to help -- or as critics charge bailout -- Ohio's two nuclear power plants will keep the facilities operating and prevent what they say could be an "economic calamity."

Currently, the Perry Nuclear Plant in Lake County could be closed by 2021 as well as the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ottawa County. The Ohio General Assembly is weighing a bill that would place a surcharge -- $30 for residential customers -- on electric bills in the state. The surcharge would generate $300 million each year for clean energy production, with half of that going to the nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions.

"It is a complex issue and it still needs thorough vetting," said state Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, adding, "My mind is open at this point. Like all difficult decisions, I am weighing all input."

Economic Impact

Lake County Commissioner Jerry Cirino testified on the bill, currently being considered by a subcommittee, in Columbus last week. He said of the plant's 700 employees, 500 are Lake County residents.

As of January, 192 employees at the Perry plant were Ashtabula County residents, Tom Becker, a FirstEnergy Solutions spokesperson, said Monday.

During his testimony, Cirino said if the plants closed it would be an "economic calamity."

"The Perry Nuclear Plant is an engine of economic growth as it contributes to clean energy efforts and secures our power supply for all of Ohio," Cirino said.

The Perry plant generates $18.8 million in state and local taxes and losing the two plants would cost the state's gross domestic product a total of $510 million annually, he said.

While the focus of the plant's closure has been on Lake County, the effects would extend into Ashtabula County as well, said Greg Myers, Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County executive director.

Cirino said the region cannot afford to have more jobs leave permanently, and he said many employees would transfer out of the area because their experience and expertise is in nuclear power. Myers also pointed out many of those jobs are high-income and their loss would hurt spending capacity in Ashtabula County.

A plant closure would also hit contractors who work on the Perry Nuclear Power Plant, Myers said.

Even when projects don't involve local contractors, they have an economic impact because work at the plant often lasts a long time and requires people to stay in hotels or short-term lodging. Geneva-on-the-Lake has a number of people working on Perry project stay at its cottages during the off-season -- not to mention spending at restaurants and gas stations, Myers said.

"It brings a lot of spending capacity into the region," he said. "It's certainly nothing to scoff at and nothing that we won't feel ... if that facility goes away."

A closure would also affect the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency, which receives additional funding for emergency planning, said county EMA Director Mike Fitchet. At the same time, if the plant is closed and decommissioned, the agency would have less work, such as special emergency drills every two years, which is why it receives additional state funding in the first place.

While a nuclear plant does pose a potential risk, Fitchet said it was "very manageable," and that regulatory policies have been "amped up" since Three Mile Island. He added that a nuclear emergency is likely to develop slower than, for example, a hazardous material tanker truck spill or a tornado, giving officials time to react.

Perry Nuclear Plant has "been here a long time and hopefully will be here a long time."

Bill faces opposition

To help offset the surcharge, the plan would eliminate renewable energy mandates that add extra charges to energy bills, something supporters say would reduce energy bills in the long run. Unlike wind and solar sources, the nuclear plants are at disadvantage because they don't get incentives, Dave Griffing, vice president of government affairs for FirstEnergy Solutions, told lawmakers last week.

While critics argue the bill is unfair to solar and wind energy developers, Patterson said 90 percent of Ohio's green energy comes from nuclear plants as solar and wind are not yet "robust enough to provide the sustainable power that Ohio needs."

However, Patterson said repeatedly he is torn on the issue, in part because FirstEnergy Solutions is in this position with the plants thanks to questionable or poor business decisions.

"There is a growing concern that this is a bail out -- another example of a company too big to fail -- and taxpayers statewide would be asked to provide funds necessary to keep those plants operating," he said, adding many constituents are upset that, despite the company's financial situation, it still has an expensive naming rights deal for the Cleveland Browns' stadium.

"That really bothers them when they're trying to meet life's demands paycheck to paycheck."

There is also no guarantee a buyer will step forward to keep the plants going, Patterson said.

Opponents of the bill, who will testify later this week, also say much of the power generated by the plants is sent out of state and closing the plants wouldn't cause a large increase costs for state users.

Patterson said if a bill to help the nuclear power plants were going to be passed it would have to happen this session with the looming 2021 deadline. It was unclear how much support the bill would have and whether either Republicans or Democrats in the General Assembly would get behind it.

"That would be 192 people (in Ashtabula County) without a job should the plant close. Again, we must examine all facts relative to the proposed legislation. On the other hand, who has come forward offering to run the plant should it be saved? I'm not aware of any potential buyers," he said, adding, "There is no easy pathway on this one."

-- The Associated Press contributed to this article

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(c)2019 the Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio)

Visit the Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio) at www.starbeacon.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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