Just like coal companies, America's nuclear power industry is having a tough time. It faces slowing demand for electricity, and competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables. And now, touting itself as a form of clean energy, the nuclear industry is lobbying state legislatures with a controversial pitch for help.

"Nobody's in the mood for a bailout," says anti-nuclear activist Eric Epstein, as he considers where to put up a poster in the Amtrak station in Harrisburg, Pa. It has the iconic image of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, and saying, "I want you to stop the bailout of nuclear power in Pennsylvania."

Epstein has been a nuclear watchdog since 1979, when one of the reactors at the nearby Three Mile Island plant partially melted down, bringing the industry's growth in the U.S. to a standstill. Four decades later, Epstein says nuclear power is just too expensive, and he doesn't want his state to do what New York and Illinois already have.

Both states recently agreed to give billions in subsidies to the nuclear industry by essentially broadening the definition of clean power. Supporters say the move will help combat climate change, since nuclear plants don't emit carbon.

"The system we have today is designed around 'How do I deliver the cheapest megawatt-hour of electricity in the next hour?' says John Kotek of the Nuclear Energy Institute, "without reflection of the environmental impacts, for example or the importance of fuel-supply diversity, or reliability."

Around the country, five nuclear plants have retired in the past five years, and another five are scheduled to close within a decade. In Pennsylvania, the Three Mile Island plant — which still has one functioning reactor — is having trouble selling its power because it's more expensive than other sources, like natural gas.

But the bailouts are facing opposition from those competing power producers, especially the booming natural gas industry.

"We are not anti-nuclear," says Stephanie Wissman, head of the Pennsylvania division of the American Petroleum Institute. Her group is part of a new coalition opposing nuclear subsidies, a coalition that includes gas trade groups, manufacturers, and the AARP. They argue the subsidies are unfair, and will lead to higher energy bills.

Wissman says nuclear plants are "an important part of the energy mix. However, they've got to play by the same rules as every other energy source."

The debate has put environmental groups in a tough spot, and left them divided. Climate change is a big priority for many of them, and they've traditionally supported subsidies for renewables. But Jackson Morris, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says nuclear power is neither clean nor renewable.

"We do recognize that it does have low-carbon attributes," he says. "But it's by no means on the same playing field as truly renewable resources, like wind, solar, and energy efficiency."

NRDC has been willing to go along with some nuclear bailouts, but only when they also included more support for renewables.

The nuclear industry is ramping up lobbying efforts in several states, including Ohio. There, a group of scientists, business and community leaders are appealing to Amazon to back the subsidies, given its support for renewable energy. In a letter to owner Jeff Bezos, they write: "If Ohio's nuclear plants are allowed to close they will be replaced overwhelmingly by coal and other fossil fuels."

But in New York, a group of opponents are challenging the subsidies to nuclear plants, saying they have "the potential to unravel U.S. power markets altogether."

Marie Cusick reports for StateImpact Pennsylvania. NPR's Jennifer Ludden contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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