Income inequality and the disappearance of a true middle class are seemingly unavoidable topics of national conversation, especially as we head into the presidential election. And rightfully so; now, more than ever, government affects the distribution of the nation's prosperity. While there are many dynamics at play here, one area where policymakers and regulators have the ability to affect positive change is by ensuring that existing nuclear energy plants — and the hundreds of thousands of solid, middle-class jobs they provide — are preserved.
The impact of these premature closures would be dire. The nuclear industry is a leading industry that drives jobs and economic growth across America. A typical U.S. nuclear plant employs between 500 and 700 workers in jobs that pay, on average, 36 percent above the prevailing local wage rate. And 36 percent of the U.S. nuclear energy workforce will be eligible to retire in 2016, opening up tens of thousands of job opportunities in the next two to four years for new labor force entrants. To top it off, a recent analysis showed that nuclear energy, while among the least expensive forms of electricity, is the most employment- and salary-intensive of all energy sources.
Beyond the direct jobs that nuclear energy plants provide, they are economic engines in the local communities in which they operate. The typical U.S. nuclear energy plant has an average annual payroll of $40 million, generates about $470 million a year in sales of goods and services and annually pays $16 million in local and state taxes that benefit schools, roads, parks and other infrastructure that our citizens rely on every day.
In communities where premature plant closures have occurred, the consequences are palpable. For example, the closure of the Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin cost its host county 15 percent of its jobs and 30 percent of its tax revenue. The closure of the San Onofre plant in California in 2013 led to a loss of 1,500 local jobs, and an estimated $400 million in lost revenue and increased costs to the region.
It would seem obvious, then, that in regions where nuclear energy plants are threatened, states would enact policies that ensure the continued viability of this major industry. For example, in states like Ohio, New York and Illinois, where nuclear plants are threatened, steps are being considered to ensure that existing nuclear plants are properly recognized in electricity markets for the value that they provide.
Regardless of the exact solutions that would help preserve the plants that are threatened — it's the purview of industry and policymakers to determine the best path forward for the long-term reliability of the electric grid and for consumers in their respective market — we must remember that there are many times when legislators or regulators must act to preserve existing industry, maintain solid-middle class jobs and avoid negative long-term economic consequences. The preservation of our existing nuclear fleet is no exception.
McGarvey is president of North America's Building Trades Unions and a member of the leadership council of Nuclear Matters.
This piece is part of America's Nuclear Energy Future series, sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). For more information about NEI, visit nei.org/futureofenergy.