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America's nuclear power industry is having a tough time, and it's looking to states for help. Like coal companies, it faces slowing demand for electricity and competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables. Marie Cusick of StateImpact Pennsylvania reports.
MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: On a recent spring day, Eric Epstein was walking around the Amtrak station in Harrisburg with a big poster.
ERIC EPSTEIN: I guess this looks as good as any place.
CUSICK: It has the iconic image of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer and saying, I want you to stop the bailout of nuclear power in Pennsylvania. Epstein is a longtime nuclear watchdog. His group, Three Mile Island Alert, formed shortly before one of the plant's reactors partially melted down in 1979, bringing the industry's growth in the U.S. to a standstill. Almost four decades later, he says nuclear is just too expensive.
EPSTEIN: Nobody's in the mood for a bailout.
CUSICK: He's concerned about what happened recently in New York and Illinois. Those states gave billions in subsidies to the nuclear industry by essentially broadening the definition of clean power to include nuclear. Now, the nuclear industry's ramped up its lobbying in several other states, including here.
EPSTEIN: So Pennsylvania, now, is the battlefront.
CUSICK: The nuclear industry says it's struggling. Around the country, five plants have retired in the past five years. Another five are scheduled to close within a decade. The Three Mile Island plant with its one still-functioning reactor is having trouble selling its power because it's more expensive than other resources, like natural gas. John Kotek is with the Nuclear Energy Institute.
JOHN KOTEK: The system we have today is designed around how do I deliver the cheapest megawatt hour of electricity in the next hour without reflection of the environmental impacts, for example, or the importance of fuel supply diversity or reliability.
CUSICK: But the bailouts are facing opposition from competing power producers, especially the natural gas industry, which is booming.
STEPHANIE CATARINO WISSMAN: In Pennsylvania, I mean, we really do have a great story to tell when it comes to natural gas.
CUSICK: That's Stephanie Catarino Wissman, head of the Pennsylvania division of the American Petroleum Institute. Her group is part of a new coalition opposing nuclear bailouts. It includes gas trade groups, manufacturers and the AARP. They argue the subsidies are unfair and will lead to higher energy bills.
WISSMAN: We are not anti-nuclear. We feel they are an important part of the energy mix. However, they've got to play by the same rules as every other energy source.
CUSICK: Environmental groups are divided. They care about climate change and have supported subsidies for renewables. But Jackson Morris of the Natural Resources Defense Council says nuclear is neither clean nor renewable.
JACKSON MORRIS: We do recognize that it does have low-carbon attributes, but it's by no means on the same playing field as truly renewable resources like wind, solar, energy efficiency.
CUSICK: NRDC has been willing to go along with nuclear bailouts before but only when they also included more support for renewables. For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick.
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