By Mike Catalini, Associated Press
TRENTON, New Jersey — New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature on Thursday passed a $300-million-a-year financial bailout for the state’s nuclear industry, one that could raise the bills of utility ratepayers by $41 a year if approved by Gov. Phil Murphy.
The measure passed the Assembly and Senate after several re-writes and boisterous objections from consumer advocates and environmentalists who warned it would penalize state residents. It also received a strong push from Senate President Steve Sweeney, whose district includes nuclear plants.
Under the legislation, the state’s utility companies would be required to purchase credits to support nuclear energy. Those costs are expected to be passed directly to ratepayers, with estimates ranging from about $30 to $41 a year.
The bill provides the financial assistance for up to four years but the bill permits it to run longer and doesn’t contain a sunset provision. It now goes to Murphy for his signature.
It had strong support from Public Service Enterprise Group, the state’s largest utility operator which runs three nuclear plants at two facilities in southern New Jersey. Company officials praised the bill’s passage.
“This is a good day for New Jersey and for those who care about state’s air quality and economy,” said PSEG spokesman Michael Jennings.
PSEG told lawmakers last year that its nuclear plants are in danger of financial insolvency and would close within two years without funds from the state.
Workers at the company’s nuclear facilities, wearing orange T-shirts that said PSEG, crowded the statehouse Thursday to push for the legislation.
“I realize while this would be devastating to me to lose nuclear, this would be devastating to Salem County,” said Tina Gregory, of Penns Grove, who works as a technical analyst at the nuclear facilities.
The company’s push for a financial rescue led then-Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers to begin assembling bailout legislation, which states such as New York and Illinois have enacted.
The bill stalled and failed to pass before Christie, a Republican, left office. Once Murphy became governor, the measure ballooned to include clean energy requirements, including an expansion of solar energy. The behemoth bill got less support than the initial bailout, and lawmakers decoupled the nuclear rescue from clean energy provisions.
Controversy over the rescue package stemmed from skepticism over whether PSEG was truly in need of financial help because the legislation allows the firm to keep its financial books private, though regulators would be permitted to review them.
“The original bill gave the shaft to ratepayers, and so does this one,” said Amy Goldsmith, the state director of Clean Water Action.
PSEG has leverage because New Jersey gets about 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources. The plants also are located in Sweeney’s senate district. PSEG says about 2,000 direct jobs could be lost if the plants shutter. Sweeney said it’s imperative to keep open a major source of electricity in the state.
PSEG President and CEO Ralph Izzo has also argued the plants constitute a key part of a clean-energy future because they emit zero in carbo emissions, and Murphy has said he sees nuclear as a “bridge” to achieving his promise of a 100 percent renewable energy portfolio by 2050.
The separate clean energy bill includes several requirements, among them a call for 35 percent renewable energy by 2025, a push for community-oriented solar power and research into energy storage. The legislation also passed both houses on Thursday.