The state’s electric customers may be forced to pay a bigger utility bill to keep something they already have.
The New Jersey legislature is expected to begin voting this week to give Chris Christie—the governor with the nation’s lowest approval rating—and his buddies at the state’s largest utility a $300 million annual gift: support for two thriving nuclear plants, piled on the backs of all New Jersey taxpayers.
Sound ridiculous? Of course. But by all accounts, the bill flying through Trenton in the waning days of the Christie administration and the lame-duck legislature almost certainly will become law before the new governor, Phil Murphy, takes office on January 16.
Does this make sense anywhere but in the New Jersey legislature?
It’s true that the electricity produced at the Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Stations in Salem County can’t compete with cheaper options like natural gas and pollution-free alternatives like wind and solar power. Aging nuclear plants are expensive to run everywhere these days. But even the president of the company that owns the plants, PSEG, admits the plants along the Delaware River in the southwestern part of the state aren’t in financial distress—and won’t be for at least two years.
That gives New Jersey plenty of time to decide whether to prop up the plants, and if so, to narrowly tailor such support to a limited time period. The flawed legislation under consideration establishes subsidies for at least three years, with no mechanism to prevent them from continuing forever. What’s more, the plants would qualify for a bailout based on projected—not actual—costs, and if they make money, there’s no requirement to return the profits to customers. There is no need to rush an overly generous bill through to earn Christie’s signature, especially when the incoming governor says he’s going to look closely at the plants as part of his clean energy plan.
Nuclear plant subsidies aren’t new. They’ve been used in other states to provide time to transition to pollution-free alternatives like energy efficiency, wind, and solar, rather than hastily turning to natural gas plants and others whose pollution will further heat our climate. Short-term bailouts also can ensure that workers get new jobs, retraining, or a good severance package and that the surrounding communities have adequate time to prepare for the loss of the plants’ tax revenues.
While nuclear plants don’t emit carbon pollution, they do generate radioactive waste and come with the risks of catastrophic accidents. However, there’s nothing in the bailout legislation to make the plants safer.
With no risk that the plants will close in the near future, why should New Jersey electric customers be forced to pay a bigger utility bill just to keep something they already have?
It’s a bad deal for everyone but PSEG and Chris Christie.