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Plant Workers, Local Leaders Say Much Is At Stake With Potential Nuclear Power Bailout

Andy Chow
Perry Nuclear Power Plants in Perry, OH.

The state's two nuclear power plants are on track to be shut down in the next two years as the owner, FirstEnergy Solutions, files for bankruptcy. But there are still some options on the table, including a possible bill from Ohio lawmakers to save the plants through increased charges on electric bills. Opponents see that route as an unnecessary bailout, but workers say it will save their jobs and their town. 

Lindsay Humble, project manager for the Perry Nuclear Power Plant, says the plant has become sort of the family business. 

“My mom had worked here before. My dad worked here. And my aunt works here still now, she’s retiring after 30 years in May,” Humble says, stressing the sense of community among the 700 people who work at the plant located in Lake County.

As project manager, Humble connects with worker in the area to find out who can carry out different tasks, “We have specialty welding or grading that we take to the local places. So we’re putting a lot of the money back into the community and not just our local community in Lake County but also in the state as well.”

Humble is joining her co-workers and many local community leaders in calling for help to save the plant.

Perry, and the Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant in Ottawa County, are run by FirstEnergy Solutions which is filing for bankruptcy as a restructuring plan that separates the power generator from its parent company, FirstEnergy Corp. As part of the filing, FirstEnergy Solutions has laid out a plan to close both of its nuclear plants by 2021. But it also clearly says they are trying to get “legislative relief.”

That’s where state lawmakers come in. For a few years, legislators have been trying to pass a bill that would create subsidies for nuclear. The general premise is to credit nuclear power for its zero emission of carbon.

A rough draft of the latest proposal allowed for rate increases on electric bills.

Ohio gets about 15% of its energy from nuclear generation, while coal and natural gas make up the majority.

Chris Elliott, site operations manager at the Perry plant, says it’s vital to embrace nuclear as an energy source in order to diversify the state’s energy portfolio.

“I think it’s really important to have diversity. I’m not saying that just cause I’m fond of nuclear. I just think when you look at any industry it has to have diversity to be successful,” Elliott says.

But there are opponents who aren’t convinced - and they’re not people who would normally agree.

Conservative groups don’t like the idea of a so-called bailout. Micah Derry, with Americans for Prosperity Ohio, says this kind of plan ends up being a form of corporate welfare.

“Companies that have enough money to advertise on stadiums in Cleveland but somehow need a taxpayer shore up in order to actually pay for their profits,” Derry says.

Americans for Prosperity has been known to support fossil fuels. But as Derry points out, they’ve come out against a similar proposal that would prop-up struggling coal plants.

Then there are environmental groups are believe creating credits for nuclear undermines the standards created to help the renewable energy industry.

Dick Munson with the Environmental Defense Fund agrees with Derry that FirstEnergy, not the taxpayers, should be responsible for its investments.

“They are uneconomic, they just don’t make it in the marketplace,” says Munson.

But local leaders in Lake County say the plant is worth saving. Perry Local Schools superintendent Jack Thompson says the town would not be able to fill in the financial gap left behind if the plant were to close.

“If you just go to any of the towns that have lost their nuclear power plants you can see what the future of Perry would be like without it,” Thompson says.

Munson says he understands the human element that comes with a nuclear plant shut down, but urges that’s all the more reason for the legislature to shift their focus.

“We have to think about the economic implication of closures…You lose one of your largest employers, you’ve got a tax impact that hurts schools so yes we have to think about economic development consequences,” Munson says.

As for Elliott, he says managing the plant is the job he was meant to do.

“I’m going on 15 years now working here and had no idea what I was getting into when I got here but this is what I do now I love nuclear power, everything about it. And if this place were to go away I’d be finding a new job in nuclear power somewhere else,” says Elliott.

Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed interest in legislation that could help nuclear power plants. Rep. Jamie Callender (R-Concord) who represents a large portion of Lake County has been leading the charge on creating the policy.

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