the Beacon Journal editorial board

FirstEnergy has been pounded of late. Interest groups and others have cudgeled proposed legislation designed to give the financially stressed power company a new measure of breathing room. State Sens. John Eklund, a Chardon Republican, and Frank LaRose, a Hudson Republican, introduced Senate Bill 128 last week. It would create a system of zero-emission credits, utility customers paying more to keep the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants in operation.

The system would translate to roughly $300 million a year for FirstEnergy. Critics have been quick to label the arrangement a bailout, which it is, to a degree. The Public Utilities Commission already has aided the Akron-based company with a rider on delivery rates, generating $200 million annually for three years.

PJM Interconnection, the manager of the transmission grid in Ohio and a dozen other states, also recently entered the discussion. Its researchers issued a report running counter to FirstEnergy arguments that preserving the nuclear plants is crucial to reliable service.

Once an ardent supporter of deregulated generation, FirstEnergy now finds itself at a disadvantage in the market, its coal and nuclear power plants unable to compete with cheap and abundant natural gas. Opponents of S.B. 128 hardly have held back in highlighting the about-face by FirstEnergy.

They argue that state lawmakers should not pick favorites. Which makes sense ó until more pressing factors come into play.

The overriding concern isnít the market or reliability. Nuclear power plants burn cleanly ó as in zero emissions of carbon dioxide. Follow the science about climate change, the challenge of slowing carbon emissions already immense and growing, and neither the state nor the country can afford to see nuclear power plants shut down.

The international community has committed to limiting the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Centigrade, reflecting the scientific consensus. That requires halting the burning of fossil fuels by 2050 to 2070, and even then the odds of meeting the goal are formidable. This scenario reinforces that natural gas, though 40 percent cleaner than coal, still is a fossil fuel.

Wind, solar and other renewable sources are gaining market share. Still, they have a long way to go, bringing to the front the indispensable role of nuclear in addressing carbon emissions.

Just so much modeling? There is guesswork involved. Yet it is best to apply the principles of insurance in thinking about the climate problem. Many purchase home or life insurance policies when the risk of calamity is less.

If nothing else, continuing to operate nuclear power plants is the smart hedge.

New York and Illinois have moved in this direction, though they have encountered legal obstacles. Yes, the FirstEnergy proposal would increase monthly customer bills by 5 percent. It would benefit from more transparency. Still, the added cost belongs in the context of the mounting expense that climate change promises.

More, the closing of the Davis-Besse and Perry plants translates to 1,400 lost jobs, not to mention revenue losses for local communities. Critics needle FirstEnergy for coming late to concern for the climate. Yet this is bigger than the company, or the city of Akron. Every clean megawatt matters.

In that way, Ohio will come to regret failing to keep open these two nuclear power plants.