After losing $800 million over the last five years, the owners of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Elizabethown say they have to stop the bleeding and will close the 43-year-old facility at the end of September 2019 without the state or federal government stepping in to bail out nuclear power.
The Dauphin County plant’s 675 employees were notified of the action Tuesday, May 30. Some 202 of them live in Lancaster County, more than any other county.
The bipartisan Nuclear Energy Caucus, co-formed by state Sen. Ryan Aument of Landisville to investigate ways to keep nuclear energy in business, called the possible closure proof that “there are serious and consequential underlying issues in Pennsylvania’s energy sector that must be addressed.”
The caucus said the premature closing “will mean a significant loss of family-sustaining jobs, high-capacity baseload clean energy, and the many direct and indirect economic benefits that surround the production of electricity from a nuclear power plant.”
Others were less sympathetic.
“If they can’t produce, let them shut down. Using taxpayer funds to prop them up would be as ridiculous as propping up something as outdated as the coal industry! Oh, wait,” Steven Laskoske of Lancaster commented on Facebook.
Added Nathaniel Torres of Lancaster, also commenting on the potential closure, “Good. Big business should be allowed to fail like any other business.”
Though it was well known the country’s most iconic nuclear plant was in financial trouble, it was still a startling announcement of a potential premature closure.
Only eight years ago, TMI had successfully petitioned the federal government to extend its operating license so the plant could continue running through 2034.
“Years ago, had we been told that Three Mile Island would shut down in 2019, we wouldn’t have believed it,” said former Lancaster Mayor Arthur E. Morris. Morris for many years headed a citizens advisory panel on the subsequent cleanup and whether Unit 1 should ever restart.
Morris, noting that he was never opposed to nuclear power, said there is a part of him that would like to see TMI stay in operation. “At some point, we may regret the loss of an asset in this area,” he said.
But he quickly adds that the energy scene is changing so fast that there is not a clear-cut answer. And he said no taxpayer money should be used to prop up nuclear power.
Gov. Tom Wolf, who lives near TMI, said through spokesman J.J. Abbott that Pennsylvania needs a diverse energy sector and that he “looks forward to engaging with the General Assembly about what direction Pennsylvania will go in regards to its energy sector, including the future of nuclear power.”
Dennis Stuckey, chairman of the Lancaster County Commissioners, said of Exelon’s request for help, “With the other issues the state has, it may be very difficult for them to come up to any financial solution to Exelon and TMI.”
State Rep. David Hickernell, whose district TMI is located in, said he was hopeful the decision to close can be reversed. But the member of the Nuclear Energy Caucus cautioned that any decision should revolve around “what is in the best interest of consumers and taxpayers.”
After being shut down for six years after its sister reactor’s partial meltdown in 1979, TMI Unit 1 overcame a national stigma to resume operating in 1985. It set several world records for operating efficiency.
“Today is a difficult day, not just for the 675 talented men and women who have dedicated themselves to operating Three Mile Island safely and reliably every day, but also for their families, the communities and customers who depend on this plant to produce clean energy and support local jobs,” said Chris Crane, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Exelon.
Crane then made an appeal for Pennsylvania to bail out nuclear power in the state, second only Illinois in the number of nuclear plants.
“Like New York and Illinois before it, the Commonwealth has an opportunity to take a leadership role by implementing a policy solution to preserve its nuclear energy facilities and the clean, reliable energy and good-paying jobs they provide.
“We are committed to working with all stakeholders to secure Pennsylvania’s energy future, and will do all we can to support the community, the employees and their families during this difficult period,” Crane said.
Exelon made a similar announcement about closing two reactors in Illinois a year ago and was eventually successful in getting environmental credits from the state legislature.
Can TMI be saved?
In an interview with LNP, David Fein, Exelon vice president of government affairs, said he was “cautiously optimistic” either state legislators or PJM, the regional energy managers, or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may take action to allow financially strapped nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania to continue to operate.
“We are going to continue to explore those options,” Fein said. “It’s early in the process in talking about legislative or policy solutions in Pennsylvania.”
The September 2019 closure coincides with the plant’s next refueling outage when new uranium fuel would need to be loaded for generation of electricity.
While Exelon said it will doggedly pursue ways to keep TMI afloat, it said it was taking immediate steps to begin shutting down the plant.
For example, Exelon said it would be sending a deactivation notice to PJM, which handles the flow of electricity to 14 states and would notify the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its plans.
In addition, Exelon said it would terminate capital investment projects to keep the plant open beyond September 2019. Also, the purchase of new fuel has been canceled and contracts to about 1,500 temporary workers that would handle the refueling.
“This is not a bluff. This is happening. We’re stopping all capital investments,” said Dave Marcheskie Jr., Exelon’s spokesman stationed at TMI.
A good part of Exelon’s news release deals with making the case for nuclear power as a “clean” energy source and important cog in Pennsylvania’s economy, and thus why the state should find a way to save nuclear power and its five plants in the state.
“Absent policy reforms, the loss of Pennsylvania nuclear plants would increase air pollution, compromise the resiliency of the electric grid, raise energy prices for consumers, eliminate thousands of good-paying local jobs and weaken the state’s economy.”
Exelon criticized the state for not including nuclear power in the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard that requires utilities to use such “clean power” sources as solar, wind and hydro.
Amending that portfolio is one potential solution to nuclear power’s troubled financial situation, Exelon said.
Or, the legislature could give nuclear power credits for not producing climate-changing pollution, Exelon said, pointing out that approach has been taken recently by legislators in Illinois and state utility regulators in New York. Both those actions are currently being appealed in federal court.
Exelon said it was committed to working with “stakeholders to find the best solution for Pennsylvania.”
One of those is the recently formed Nuclear Energy Caucus. The caucus, with about 75 legislators, says it wants to keep nuclear power in Pennsylvania in the mix but has not yet proposed any legislation or solutions.
Nuclear power has been hit hard by plentiful natural gas power plants, which run on cheaper energy and cost far less to operate. Conservation and a reduced demand for electricity also has played a role.
TMI is especially hampered in the current energy market because it has had only only one unit running since Unit 2 was knocked out of service after the infamous partial-meltdown accident in 1979.
For three straight years, TMI has failed to sell any of its power at a key energy auction that locks up power sales for a year at a time. Power was sold in various other auctions and market purchases.
TMI isn’t the only nuclear plant in the state in trouble. FirstEnergy Corp. has said it could decide next year to sell or close its three nuclear plants, including Beaver Valley in Pennsylvania. The Ohio Legislature recently refused to bail out two FirstEnergy plants there.
But any aid to nuclear power is getting pushback from an unusual consortium of those against nuclear power and other power producers.
Eric Epstein, of the Harrisburg-based TMI Alert anti-nuclear group, notes that the nuclear industry received substantial subsidies in the 1990s as part of utility deregulation.
He said the market should determine who survives in the changing energy scene.
While Exelon claims the absence of electricity generated by nuclear plants in Pennsylvania would end up raising the costs of electricity, a recent study by PJM found that there would be ample power available without nuclear’s share.