In the end, the state Board of Public Utilities decided not to take the chance that New Jersey’s three nuclear power plants might close if they received less than the $300 million a year subsidy approved by the Legislature.

BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso told The Press and others that the board could award a smaller subsidy, and the state Ratepayer Advocate’s Office also argued it could. Since its staff and others considered the plants still profitable — just “not profitable enough,” as one commissioner said — a lesser but still effective subsidy seemed possible.

Four of the five BPU commissioners thought otherwise, voting April 18 to give PSEG and Exelon the full subsidy to “save our nuclear fleet” in Salem County, as another commissioner put it.

The subsidy will cost residential ratepayers $31 to $41 a year, and commercial users much more — hundreds of thousands a year for many.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said the full subsidy was “best for the economy, the environment and consumers.” That view was supported in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary by a leading climate scientist, James Hansen of the Earth Institute Columbia University, and Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress.

They said that with two-thirds of U.S. nuclear plants at risk of being closed prematurely and replaced by natural-gas-powered plants, consumers could be “vulnerable to future price increases at the hands of monopolistic gas generators.”

Nuclear plants — which generate far more power than wind and solar and do so constantly, as opposed to when the wind is blowing and the sun shining — also are America’s largest source of clean, zero-emissions electricity and crucial to fighting climate change. New Jersey’s three plants account for 90 percent of its carbon-free power.

Even the BPU’s full $300 million a year is only the same rate that New Jersey and its ratepayers have subsidized the solar industry — about $3 billion the past decade. And solar still only provides 4 percent of electricity in New Jersey, while the nuclear plants provide 32 percent.

A smaller nuclear subsidy would have been better and looked possible. In three years the BPU will get a chance to reduce it when it comes up for renewal. An effort by grid operators and others to get the federal government to boost revenues for reserve capacity generators such as nuclear plants may make that easier.

New Jersey joins at least three other states in providing subsidies to keep their nuclear plants operating, and Pennsylvania and Ohio are considering doing the same. The cost is significant, but at least the BPU’s action keeps alive the state’s ambitious goal to have a 100 percent clean-energy economy by 2050.

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