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Foes Pledge Ballot Fight If Ohio Bails Out Nuclear Plants: 'We Will Kill This Thing'

The entrance to Energy Harbor's Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio.
Ron Schwane
Associated Press
The entrance to FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio.

The fight over giving a financial lifeline to Ohio's two nuclear plants by tacking a new fee onto every Ohioans' electricity bill might not end even if state lawmakers agree on a solution this week.

That's because a group led by investors in natural gas plants is promising an attempt to override the plan — if it's approved — through a statewide vote next year.

What's at stake goes beyond the debate over whether the legislation is really just a bailout of the nuclear industry and could become a campaign issue in Ohio's 2020 legislative races.

"We will kill this thing dead because we know the public is against it," said Bill Siderewicz, president of Clean Energy Future, which has developed a handful of natural gas plants in Ohio.

But first lawmakers must determine within the next few days if they're willing to add a monthly surcharge on electricity bills to give nearly $200 million each year for the nuclear plants.

FirstEnergy Solutions, which operates the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo and the Perry plant near Cleveland, says it needs to decide by the beginning of July whether to spend millions on refueling the plants or to shut them down.

The company maintains that it can't afford to operate the nuclear plants unless the government steps in and helps reduce the costs. Without any aid, both plants are slated to close by 2021.

The Ohio Senate is considering the legislation already passed by the House, and a committee could vote on it Wednesday.

While most Republicans in the House backed the bill, those in the Senate have been more reluctant and may make changes to the proposal.

Supporters argue that the plants produce nearly all of the state's clean energy and are vital to the areas where they're located by employing a combined 1,400 workers and generating millions in taxes for schools and services.

They've also poured money into television and radio ads along with mailings and robocalls — all designed to sway lawmakers and public opinion.

But the opponents have been just as vocal, including renewable energy backers who are angry that the bill would get rid of mandates promoting the use of wind and solar power.

The state's growing natural gas industry has been against helping the nuclear plants from the beginning, saying it would create an uneven playing field and go against free market principles.

As many as 60 companies that are against the legislation would likely be willing to fund an effort to overturn it through a statewide vote next year, Siderewicz said. Raising the money, he said this week, would not be a problem.

There already have been discussions about beginning efforts this year to collect enough signatures to put the issue on the 2020 ballot, he said.

"And all of the politicians who are behind it, we will target them as well," he said. "We're talking about an entire industry that's at risk here."