This week saw the first in a series of State House hearings on the proposed bailout of Pennsylvania’s nuclear power industry. As we have noted previously, the cost to ratepayers would be roughly $500 million. This latest bailout is on top of the $9 billion in subsidies granted to the nuclear power industry in the lead-up to the deregulation of the Commonwealth’s energy sector in 1996.
Among the voices calling for another round of subsidies for the nuclear industry was former Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Ridge. It was during the Ridge administration that the first steps were taken to open up Pennsylvania’s energy market to competition. The resulting competition has saved Pennsylvania consumers and businesses millions of dollars. (Hold the applause, it was also the Ridge administration that dug a multibillion-dollar hole for taxpayers by signing off on a 25 percent pension increase for state employees and teachers.)
Why would one of the architects of deregulation now want to turn around and undo the progress that has been made? One possible answer is that the nuclear power industry has engaged Ridge’s lobbying firm to push their bailout through the General Assembly. Furthermore, Ridge was on the board of Exelon, the current owner of Three Mile Island. The former Governor may genuinely believe that the nuclear power industry is a vital part of the energy mix. However, it is almost impossible to separate out his personal financial interest in the issue from the policy position. The conflict of interest, or least appearance of it, is likely why Ridge was reluctant to admit his firm’s connection to the nuclear industry during testimony.
Questionable motives aren’t limited to Gov. Ridge. A more explicit example comes from John Hanger, former Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Before his stint at the DEP, Hanger was the President of PENNFuture a left-of-center environmental organization. PENNFuture’s newsletter, known as E Cubed, published a scathing rebuke of the subsidies afforded to the nuclear power industry (Vol. 9, Nov. 4 – June 7, 2007) in a criticism directed at the PA Chamber of Commerce:
“The list of subsidies and government intervention in favor of nuclear are almost endless. Would any nuclear power plant have ever been built in the United States without the Price Anderson Act that limited the liability of plant owners in the event of a nuclear accident? Without that intervention in the insurance market, nuclear power would have been uninsurable. Elsewhere in the world, nuclear plants are only built by governments that own the plants or pay for them in one way or another. Though nuclear would never survive in a true free market and though Pennsylvanians paid $30 billion just to build the existing nuclear plants, the Pennsylvania Chamber curiously likes more nukes.”
Fast forward to today; John Hanger is an “advisor” to Exelon, and a vocal advocate for yet another subsidy for an industry he criticized for being too dependent on government largess.
Tom Ridge was right to support deregulation. John Hanger was right to decry nuclear subsidies. Today they’re both wrong to support legislation that would cost ratepayers $500 million per year to subsidize a profitable industry. It’s up to lawmakers to look out for the best interest of consumers, and not pad the bottom line of profitable corporations.