DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. Here in the United States, there are 99 nuclear power plants operating today. The industry says more than half of them are at risk of closing over the next decade. To keep plants open, operators are lobbying for subsidies. NPR's Jeff Brady reports from one of the best-known nuclear plants in the country.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Security is tight at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, where the country's worst nuclear disaster happened in 1979. Walk past the tall cooling towers, and there's razor wire, heavily armed guards and something that blows air on visitors to detect explosives residue.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Air pump on.
BRADY: The reactor where the accident happened is still shut down. We're headed to the one next door that has generated electricity since 1974. The control room is like stepping back in time. There's green panels with analog meters, flashing lights and old-style levers.
DAVE MARCHESKIE: Everything is original. A couple of the screens are new. The only thing that has changed since the time it was built are the countertops.
BRADY: Dave Marcheskie is a spokesman for Exelon, which owns the operating power plant. It can't compete with cheaper electricity generated from natural gas and renewable energy. So Three Mile Island - everyone here calls it TMI - is scheduled to shut down next year. David Fein, with Exelon, says that's a problem.
DAVID FEIN: If you are concerned about climate change or concerned about the environment, you should be very concerned about the future of TMI.
BRADY: Fein heads Exelon's lobbying efforts and says nuclear plants don't emit greenhouse gases or other pollutants when they generate electricity. He wants plant operators to get paid for that public benefit.
FEIN: Whether that's a state program combined with a regional program or a federal program, you know, all of these things need to sort of come into clearer focus for us to reverse the decision.
BRADY: If policymakers can come up with a new subsidy program quickly enough, Fein says TMI could be saved. This strategy has worked for the nuclear industry in other states - Illinois, New York and New Jersey. At Pennsylvania's capitol in Harrisburg, there's opposition. Eric Epstein chairs the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert. And he argues TMI should be allowed to close.
ERIC EPSTEIN: It's a natural winnowing of the herd. They're not competitive. They're an antique. They're a fossil.
BRADY: Epstein concedes that at the point of generation nuclear emits no greenhouse gases. But he says the industry's effort to rebrand itself as environmentally beneficial doesn't hold up.
EPSTEIN: If you consider nuclear green, then you have to ignore high-level radioactive waste.
BRADY: The federal government still doesn't have permanent storage for that waste. And Epstein says there's the environmental cost of uranium mining to consider too. Also there's the question of giving nuclear power plants public money that could be used for renewable energy instead. Abe Silverman is with the power company NRG, which opposes the subsidies.
ABE SILVERMAN: It really is this sort of philosophical battle. Are we building the energy economy of the future? Or are we just sort of keeping with the status quo?
BRADY: The nuclear industry thinks it has a good chance of convincing people to support its side of this debate. Ann Bisconti does opinion research for the industry and says a lot fewer people oppose nuclear energy now than just after the Three Mile Island disaster. She says many are in the mushy middle, which creates an opportunity.
ANN BISCONTI: When you see a whole lot of people sitting in the middle - really fence-sitters - information that they receive that they didn't know before makes a huge difference.
BRADY: Which is one reason the nuclear industry is talking a lot about its environmental benefits now as it seeks subsidies to keep more plants from closing. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTY O'DONNELL & MICHAEL SALVATORI'S "HALO THEME MJOLNIR MIX")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.