The cooling towers are more menacing than I had expected.
Though I know the thick cloud of steam rising above Lake County isn’t radioactive, looking at the Perry Nuclear Power Plant, I can’t help but shudder a bit.
“It looks scary, doesn’t it?”
The woman bagging my zucchini smiles. She assures me that it’s safe. Mary Poppins is playing in the background, but Chernobyl comes to mind. I look around at the array of locally grown items, the squash, tomatoes, peppers, spices and assortment of fruit — all grown right in her backyard. As she hands me my credit card, it’s clear that she can sense my apprehension. “The plant sends someone to test the dirt every now and then,” she says.
Still. A farmers market less than five miles from a power plant. It seems problematic. But for the folks who live here, she tells me, the power plant is just part of everyday life.
The Perry Nuclear Power Plant was built in 1986. From the entrance of the campus, about a quarter of a mile from the cooling towers, the plant looks like a fortress with a well-manicured lawn. But if Perry residents feel intimidated by the plant’s existence, their residential patterns don’t show it. Homes line the street leading up to the plant and a park sits just around the corner.
While picking out tomatoes and squash at another local store, I learn that it’s common for folks around here to know someone who works at the plant.
“My friend’s dad, growing up, worked there. They’re good jobs,” my bagger says.
But wasn’t there talk about the plant shutting down? I ask.
“Yeah, it was going to but the state saved it,” says the bagger.
Her tone strikes me. Straightforward. Matter-of-fact. Without a sigh of relief or even a flourish of triumph. It doesn’t quite match the intensity that pushed the bill into existence or the flyers that have arrived at my door to prevent the referendum effort.
The bill that rescued the plant, called Ohio House Bill 6, or HB6, went into effect Oct. 22. On its face, it is an effort to maintain the state’s existing nuclear infrastructure, while encouraging power plants to move towards zero or reduced carbon emissions. The bill will create a clean air program through the addition of minor monthly fees on residential, commercial and industrial electric bills. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be collected over the next few years, with the Ohio Air Quality Board determining how the money will be spent.
As the money is intended to support existing power plants in their transition towards cleaner energy, it’s likely that a significant chunk of that money, a total of $1.1 billion dollars over the next six years, will go to FirstEnergy Solutions, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy. FirstEnergy Solutions owns the only two power plants in the state — Perry and another called Davis-Besse, near Port Clinton. Its parent company, FirstEnergy, owns the transmission wires.
Last year, FirstEnergy Solutions filed for bankruptcy protection. The filing came after four hedge funds, including activist investor Paul Singer’s Elliot Capital Management, bought $2.5 billion of FirstEnergy shares, and pledged to help with a restructuring.
The bankruptcy was a boon for FirstEnergy, which was moving from generating power to sending it along the wires. With FirstEnergy Solutions tied up in bankruptcy, its parent company went from losing $1.7 billion in 2017 to making $981 million in 2018.
In addition to getting FirstEnergy out of the red, the bankruptcy appeared to put the future of the nuclear plants in jeopardy, even as Ohio Senate testimony suggested the plants themselves were profitable. Lawmakers proposed HB6 as a way to keep the plants operating, and save jobs at Davis-Besse and Perry. As the bill acquired more provisions, including a ratepayer surcharge going to coal plants and cutbacks in energy efficiency standards, it quickly became a live-wire issue, with free market libertarians and environmentalists opposing it, and local unions, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a bipartisan group of Northeast Ohio politicians supporting it.
After much fighting, HB6 passed and was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine this July. But that didn’t end the issue. Over the summer, canvassers around the state collected signatures, due Oct. 21, for a referendum that they hope would repeal HB6.
When I look at the plant, I see the tall stacks and the power structure they represent. Its continued existence is the direct result of state intervention and corporate control over legislative efforts. But, like many of the issues that plague our state, the power brokers and governance systems seem to exist alongside the lived experiences of neighbors, families and friends, encouraging us to ignore the broken system out of fear that it will disrupt our everyday lives.
In a community so tied to the existence of the plant, so reliant on the local employment opportunities and the revenue for the Perry Public Schools, no one I speak to throughout a day in Perry calls the passage of HB6 a monumental win. It feels expected. The plant is just a normal part of town. Its continued operation is assumed, almost routine.
The politics of HB6 stand in stark contrast to this reality. Those efforts have been filled with passion, dramatics and doomsday narratives. Supporters of HB6 sent out mailers and local TV commercials framing referendum petition collectors as agents of the Chinese government. For anti-HB6 canvassers, the bill is about the future and the precedent that this bill sets. The claims that a Chinese agenda is behind attacks on HB6 have been proven to be false. The fight has gotten so ugly that violence erupted between the groups outside of a Columbus-area library in September.
In a state and city where industrial and energy jobs are tied to our very identities, our future depends on at least mitigating the tensions inherent in HB6, tensions that, ironically, the bill itself does little to resolve. Whether the referendum makes it to the ballot or not, HB6 and the fight around it have not brought us closer to resolving the inherent conflict between our environmental future and our economic one.
If HB6 stays law, the bill will likely fade into the background to the people who live in Perry, just another instrument of the rich and powerful, intended to maintain the status quo. There will likely be little discussion of the clean air objectives, or a green economy that would guarantee plant workers a smooth transition. In this case, the status quo means keeping good-paying local jobs and shrugging off why they were put in jeopardy.
On the side of the road, a man selling corn says he’s not the least bit surprised that HB6 passed. He doesn’t mention the referendum.
The corn looks great. As I search my bag for bills, he confides in me that prior to the passage of the bill, the plant had already applied for another 20-year license. (The plant announced its intent to renew in May 2017, but withdrew it in November 2018.) I ask him how he feels about that, assuming it might irk him or rub him the wrong way. He hands over my corn. “They knew it would pass,” he says.
Seems shady, I say.
“Yeah it was,” he says. “But that’s just the way everybody operates nowadays, you know?”