In 1979, Pennsylvania was the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents in U.S. history. The partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island launched a wave of antinuclear sentiment that eventually led the United States to largely abandon building new nuclear power plants.

But now, four decades later, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the state's capital of Harrisburg — just a few miles up the Susquehanna River — are considering ways to save Three Mile Island and other Pennsylvania nuclear generators at risk of shutting down.

The debate underway in Pennsylvania highlights just how much views around nuclear power have shifted in the face of another looming threat: climate change.

“The most significant benefit” of keeping the nuclear generators open, Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument told me, “is the important role nuclear must play if we are to meet our very ambitious targets to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions.”

Aument and other state legislators are floating a proposal to subsidize the state’s nuclear power plants to keep them from closing. A 2004 state law requires utilities to buy a percentage of their power from renewable and alternative sources; as part of the potential rescue plan, these lawmakers want nuclear power to be counted in the same categories. This would provide financial help needed for Three Mile Island to hold off its planned October closure. The lawmakers say another one of the state’s plants will otherwise shutter in 2021.

Nuclear plants don’t emit carbon while operating — and Aument says the environmental benefit of keeping them open will help slow global warming. A huge part of the state’s carbon-free electricity — 93 percent — comes from nuclear power. And 42 percent of the state’s electricity overall is generated by nuclear power. So, plant closures could have a huge impact on emissions in the state if they were to be replaced by fossil fuel-fired power plants.

Aument sees other upsides to keeping the plants open, including economic benefits and better diversity in the electricity market.

Legislators have circulated a memo calling for sponsors and unveiling a first look at details for an expected bill to bail out the plants. Aument told me he's hoping to finalize a bill within the next couple of weeks and is working with Republican state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, who will introduce a companion bill in the state House. 

The memo said updating the 2004 standard would “recognize nuclear energy for its significant contribution to this state’s zero-carbon energy production.”

Although experts agree nuclear power does help stave off global warming, some environmental groups aren’t yet on board with the plan lawmakers have floated in Pennsylvania. Some environmental activists want any subsidy proposal to include plans to boost renewable energy sources — insisting nuclear power, while more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, is not a long-term solution.

Mark Szybist, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it’s not enough to look at short-term solutions to climate concerns. His group is calling for proposals that include a transition from nuclear plants that “at some point will all retire.”

“To move forward with legislation now that simply subsidizes nuclear power without figuring out what the transition from those plants look like, we think that would be a big mistake,” Szybist told me. The NRDC sent a letter to Pennsylvania lawmakers calling for a subsidy plan to include additional provisions, such as a binding cap on carbon emissions and policies to boost renewable energy. Without such additions, the group said it would not support the lawmakers’ proposal. 

Yet John Quigley, director of the Center for Environment, Energy, and Economy at Harrisburg University, said activists should embrace opportunities to reduce carbon pollution where they can.

“If you’re concerned about the climate, it’s difficult to be against bailing out nuclear plants,” Quigley said. If they close, he said, “Pennsylvania emissions will spike, and we can’t afford that if we’re serious about the climate.”  

“We have to look at every opportunity to decarbonize; if that means some type of mechanism to allow nuclear power plants [to stay open], that’s a trade-off worth making when the climate is at stake,” he continued.

Szybist acknowledged NRDC doesn't want "to see the nuclear plants replaced by fossil fuel plants that only add to our climate problems.”

“Although we recognize nuclear power generates large volumes of low-carbon electricity, we also take seriously that nuclear power is neither renewable nor clean,” Szybist said.

Aument said he’s talking to environmental groups as they work on the bill, but he’s wary of the “narrow path” to get support needed to pass a subsidy bill in time to keep plants from closing.

Szybist also recognized environmental groups have an uphill battle pushing a clean-energy agenda in a state that’s not only the second-largest nuclear generator but the second-largest producer of natural gas and third-largest producer of coal.

“It feels like we’re in a fight with Godzilla, King Kong and Goliath, and all of those lobbies greatly outspend the clean energy lobbies and environmental organizations,” he said.


— Another day, another group of youths demonstrating about climate change: More than 200 young people, organized by environmental activist group Sunrise Movement, gathered to demand a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill to urge the Kentucky Republican to support the Green New Deal. “McConnell, who has called for a vote on the measure in an effort to paint Democrats as divided, was nowhere to be found Monday as demonstrators packed his office and staged a sit-in in the hall outside,” The Post's Marissa J. Lang reports. The protest was the first this week in a series of demonstrations planned for senators' offices across the country. A McConnell spokeswoman said, "as with all Kentuckians visiting D.C., we welcomed them to the office."

From the Sunrise Movement's New York State Director

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) weighed in: 

Meanwhile: The group of students who met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Friday held a news conference outside the senator’s office in San Francisco. “We are not here to talk about our interaction with Sen. Feinstein,” one of the activists said. “We are here to talk about the Green New Deal and why we need it … This isn’t about any political agenda but our own, which is that we want to live.”

Local high school and middle school students deliver testimonials to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office in San Francisco,...

Posted by Brave New Films on  Monday, February 25, 2019

More perspective on Feinstein’s exchange with the group of young activists: It represented a stark divide playing out in the climate conversation that exists “between those who think that addressing climate change can happen at a moderate pace and those who are responding to the urgency that has become a steady undercurrent of new climate analysis and reporting,” The Post’s Philip Bump writes. He also highlights the point from climate activist Bill McKibben, who wrote in the New Yorker over the weekend that Feinstein underlined the significance of time in her remarks to the group of middle- and high schoolers. “The irony is that, when Feinstein said she’s been 'doing this for thirty years,' she described the precise time period during which we could have acted,” McKibben wrote.

— “We have no time to waste debating alternative facts”: In an op-ed in The Post, former secretary of state John F. Kerry criticized the Trump administration's plan to put together a group to reexamine government analysis of climate science. “We know what the outcome will be: President Trump’s council of doubters and deniers will convene to undo a 26-year-old factual consensus that climate change is a national security threat multiplier,” Kerry writes. “As we careen toward irreversible environmental tipping points, we have no time to waste debating alternative facts only to invest years more reestablishing trust in the real ones.”

— Senators want government to ban Huwawei's solar tech: A bipartisan group of senators wants the Trump administration to ban the use of supplies from Huawei Technologies because of concern about risk to the nation’s energy infrastructure. A group of 11 senators called on the federal government to block the company from providing solar inverters, used to convert solar energy to power, the same way it blocked the company from providing equipment for the U.S. telecommunications network. “We understand that Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of solar inverters, is attempting to access our domestic residential and commercial markets,” the senators wrote to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. “Congress recently acted to block Huawei from our telecommunications equipment market due to concerns with the company’s links to China’s intelligence services. We urge similar action to protect critical U.S. electrical systems and infrastructure.”


— High carbon could suppress cooling clouds: Extreme climate change and the resulting high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide could cause stratocumulus clouds — the ones that hover low in the sky and create a widespread layer of cloud cover — to disappear, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience. And that could make global warming worse, because the top of the clouds reflect solar radiation back into space, The Post’s Joel Achenbach reports. The study’s lead researcher, Tapio Schneider, worked with colleagues to model the formation of the clouds, and found that following two years of computer calculations, “the steady rise in atmospheric CO2 could trigger a sudden spike in temperature associated with disappearing stratocumulus clouds,” Achenbach writes.

Some more context, via The Post’s Chris Mooney:

— Windstorm unleashed from Great Lakes to Northeast: A powerful windstorm brought 60 to 70 mph gusts over the regions, and the “highest winds have spilled into the urban corridor of the Northeast, with locations from Washington to Boston under advisories and warnings,” The Post’s Ian Livingston reported Monday. “Almost 100 million people were under high wind warnings at the same time late Sunday,” Livingston writes. “Including new wind warnings and advisories Monday, well over half of the nation’s population has been impacted by this system’s hefty gusts.”

High winds affect the District, too: More than 9,000 Dominion Energy customers in suburban Northern Virginia were in the dark at the peak of high winds on Monday. In Maryland, about 1,880 Pepco customers also were without power early in the day, and Baltimore Gas and Electric reported 3,000 customers were at some point without power, The Post’s Dana Hedgpeth reports.


— Venezuela watch: Vice President Pence announced minor new U.S. sanctions against allies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a meeting with regional leaders, The Post’s Anne Gearan, Anthony Faiola and Carol Morello report and he also called on other nations to abide by the Trump administration’s move to freeze the assets of Venezuela’s state oil giant PDVSA. “The United States is running out of sanctions options, as Monday’s announcement showed, after last month imposing sweeping penalties that effectively cut off Maduro’s biggest source of hard currency — oil sales to the United States,” the Post team writes. “The cash flow into PDVSA — Venezuela’s state oil giant — is the single largest generator of hard currency for Maduro’s government, and the United States, before Trump’s sanctions, was its biggest buyer. Should other countries freeze PDVSA accounts, as the United States had already done and Pence called for Monday, it could further pressure Maduro, but may not be decisive.”

— SEC targets Elon Musk over another tweet: The Securities and Exchange Commission have asked a federal judge to hold the Tesla chief executive in contempt for violating the terms of a settlement reached last year. As part of the deal, Musk was to get preapproval before any “potentially market-moving tweets about the car company,” The Post’s Renae Merle and Drew Harwell report. But on Feb. 19, Musk tweeted Tesla would make 500,000 cars in 2019, a tweet that was not preapproved. After Tesla lawyers saw the first tweet, they reached out to Musk, who later issued a corrective second tweet. “The SEC’s motion is the latest escalation in the battle between one of the country’s most powerful regulators,” Merle and Harwell write.



  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations holds a hearing on the EPA’s enforcement program.
  • House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on climate research.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife holds a hearing on water supply reliability.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the state of U.S. territories.
  • The American Action Forum hosts a panel discussion on clean energy policy.

Coming Up

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on the impacts of climate change on oceans and coasts on Wednesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on clean energy infrastructure on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the  Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act and carbon capture on Wednesday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts the U.S. launch of the 2019 BP Energy Outlook on Wednesday. 
  • The EPA is scheduled to hold public hearings on the WOTUS rule on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the IEA’s World Energy Outlook on Thursday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on the Paris climate agreement on Thursday.

— Three locations in the U.K. break winter temperature records: The community of Trawsgoed in Wales saw a temperature of 69.1 degrees (20.6 Celsius) on Monday, “the warmest temperature ever recorded in the United Kingdom either in February or any winter month,” The Post's Jason Samenow and Jennifer Hassan report. “Two other locations in the United Kingdom exceeded 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees) for the first time in recorded history during February and winter.”