Corruption scandals expose nuclear industry for what it is

By Tim Judson, David Kraft and Pat Marida

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Proponents of nuclear energy like to present it as a cutting-edge technology that would save us from climate disaster. But recent corruption scandals in Ohio and Illinois have shown the nuclear industry for what it is: an aging, starving beast, hungry for bailouts and willing to do anything to get them.

Ohio and Illinois are not the only states where the nuclear power industry has successfully lobbied for nuclear bailouts using corrupt practices. They are just the first to be exposed.

U.S. attorneys in Ohio and Illinois have done us the favor of unmasking the nuclear industry’s widespread and endemic corruption. In Ohio, Republican House Speaker Larry Householder has been arrested, along with his chief of staff and three lobbyists. They were charged as co-conspirators in a bribery and racketeering scheme involving the passage of a controversial nuclear bailout. In Illinois, House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chair Michael Madigan is under investigation, while the state’s largest utility company, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd, a subsidiary of Exelon) is cooperating under a deferred prosecution agreement and paying $200 million in fines. The investigation includes ComEd’s maneuverings to attain a nuclear bailout.

The details of the plot vary by state but the overall story is the same. From 2014-2016, FirstEnergy, a utility company in Ohio, tried and failed repeatedly to persuade the Public Utility Commission of Ohio to bail out its nuclear and coal plants. When this failed, FirstEnergy turned to the legislature, which enacted a $1.1-billion bailout bill in 2019. Householder and his co-accused funneled dark money to statehouse candidates, all but one of whom voted for the bailout after getting into office. Then they conspired to kill a ballot measure seeking to repeal the bailout. The accused also pocketed a hefty amount of the funds. The money for the scheme was funneled through a shady political group called Generation Now.

In Illinois, ComEd admitted that it provided $1.3 million in payments to associates of Speaker Madigan from 2011 through 2019. Com Ed admitted that the payments were to curry favor with Madigan over matters important to the utility, including the nuclear bailout. The settlement between ComEd and the government requires the utility to fully cooperate with prosecutors. This means that more investigations against officials in other states where ComEd operates could come to light soon. The $200-million slap-on-the-wrist that ComEd is paying in fines is less than one year’s worth of the $2.4 billion bailout it secured from the Illinois legislature.

Ohio and Illinois are not the only states where Exelon, FirstEnergy, and other nuclear power companies have been lobbying for bailouts. In fact, the Illinois and Ohio subsidies are among the smaller ones: $7.6 billion for Exelon in New York; up to $3 billion for Exelon and PSEG in New Jersey; and a proposal for up $500 million per year for Exelon and FirstEnergy in Pennsylvania. This raises the question: If it took bribery and corruption to win the bailouts in Illinois and Ohio, have power companies done the same in other states, where even larger subsidies are on the table?

There is no shortage of social and environmental harms resulting from nuclear energy, which is neither clean nor carbon-free. But the scandals in Ohio and Illinois remind us that there is yet another harmful aspect to nuclear energy: the corruption it unleashes on our political system.

Aging, uncompetitive nuclear reactors cannot keep up with the technological leaps and bounds and plummeting costs of renewable energy. The only way this obsolete technology can stay competitive is by seeking public bailouts through influence peddling. In addition to the social and environmental harms that these bailouts fuel, there is the opportunity lost by diverting funding from clean, renewable energy to dirty and expensive nuclear. Every dollar spent propping up the dying nuclear industry is a dollar not spent on technologies that can decarbonize our economy while creating many times more local, clean and safe jobs.

Nuclear bailouts have corrupted our political systems and have been used to lock in the social and environmental harms of nuclear energy for years to come. Moreover, they have cheated ratepayers out of the benefits of clean, renewable energy. It’s time for lawmakers to repeal the nuclear bailouts and let the people of their states choose their energy future in an atmosphere free of corruption. If public opinion is any guide, they will choose clean, renewable energy over dirty nuclear every time.

Judson is executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a national environmental organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland. Kraft is the director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, an environmental organization based in Chicago. Marida chairs the Nuclear Free Committee of the Ohio Chapter of the Sierra Club. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks to American Forum for submitting this piece.


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