Michael Shellenberger

Gov. John Kasich has long championed cost-effective action for clean air and the environment and last year vetoed legislation that would have repealed the state’s solar and wind mandates.

Unfortunately, those mandates exclude nuclear power, which provides 90 percent of Ohio’s clear energy. As a result, Ohio’s nuclear plants are at risk of closing — and killing over 1,300 high-paying, high-skill jobs.

Cheap natural gas has played a role in nuclear’s troubles, but why then have solar and wind been booming during a time of low natural gas prices? The answer is obvious: They benefit from over 23 years of federal subsidies and state mandates like the one Kasich supports for wind and solar — and which excludes nuclear.

Like most environmentalists, I used to be opposed to nuclear power. I thought solar and wind would be enough. But the more I learned about solar and wind, I realized they could never power a high-energy industrial civilization.

Ohio is a case in point. In the 1950s and ’60s, air pollution in Ohio’s cities was so bad that people had to turn on their car headlights during the day to see through the smoke.

In response, Ohio’s electric utilities sought to build eight nuclear reactors across four different nuclear power plants, which do not emit harmful air pollution. “People just aren’t afraid of atomic energy anymore,” a gas station attendant told the Pittsburgh Press afterward.

But Ralph Nader, the Washington D.C.-based consumer rights attorney, and the San Francisco-based Sierra Club wanted Ohio residents to be afraid, and worked to kill Ohio’s nuclear plants. “A nuclear accident could wipe out Cleveland and the survivors would envy the dead,” Nader told the Beacon Journal on Oct. 15, 1974.

The same year, the Sierra Club’s executive director proposed a strategy of fear-mongering to make nuclear expensive. “Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power will supply a rationale for increasing regulation … and add to the cost of the industry,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, the state government had to issue 44 air pollution alerts in 1975 alone, as well as emergency orders to close power plants until the toxic air cleared.

The Sierra Club hired lobbyists, twisted arms and filed lawsuits while Nader trained local Ohio activists. Construction on the plants went forward, but was repeatedly halted by new lawsuits and interventions.

Today, thanks to anti-nuclear groups, coal still generates 59 percent of Ohio’s electricity. Had the six canceled reactors been built — and allowed to operate — Ohio would have seen its reliance on fossil fuels slashed, and its air quality improved — immediately.

The big lie is that nuclear is expensive. In truth, it was cheaper than coal until it was attacked by the Sierra Club, Nader and groups like the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The economics are still there,” the utility CEO said in 1979 upon announcing it wouldn’t build two new reactors at Davis-Besse. “But when you burden it with all the regulatory requirements and delays, it becomes pretty iffy.”

You might ask: Weren’t the “environmental” protests in Ohio as strong against coal as they were against nuclear?

They weren’t. The anti-nuclear groups — Nader, the Sierra Club, EDF — all gave the green light to the building of coal plants.

Hard to believe? Consider that the following is the very first sentence of a Cincinnati Enquirer story from Dec. 8, 1985:

“The cries of protest that rang out for years against a nuclear-powered Zimmer Power Plant,” the reporter wrote, “have quieted since it was announced the plant would be converted to coal power.”

What was the impact of the war on nuclear in Ohio? The pollution equivalent of adding 14 million cars on the road, and — using methods from a major study published in the British medical journal Lancet — 35,000 premature deaths.

What will happen if Ohio’s nuclear plants close? Ohio will become the worst polluter in the country on most major pollutants including particulate matter — the most important source of health damage from air pollution along with ozone. At 4,233 deaths per year, Ohio had the highest number of premature deaths resulting from larger particulate matter from electricity generation.

But does Ohio really even need the electricity from nuclear plants? Well, yes: last year Ohio imported one-fifth of its electricity from other states.

The big lie that sustains the war on nuclear is the claim that nuclear is unneeded. Funding for energy efficiency, as for solar and wind, has been lavished on Ohio for decades, and yet residential electricity consumption has continued to rise. (Ohio can thank deindustrialization for the decline of industrial electricity consumption.)

The right thing to do is end the discrimination against nuclear power. Federal and state subsidies for solar add up to over 12 cents per kilowatt hour — seven times the cost of the proposed subsidy to save Ohio’s nuclear plants.

Kasich has long touted cost-effective solutions. Here’s a great opportunity for him to do so again.

Shellenberger is a Time magazine “Hero of the Environment” and president of Environmental Progress.