Three Mile Island reactor shutdown to start soon; Exelon says Pennsylvania nuclear rescue is dead

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Re-posted from Philadelphia Inquirer article by Andrew Maykuth, May 8, 2019

Exelon Generation on Wednesday acknowledged that a proposed $500 million Pennsylvania nuclear rescue had failed to win sufficient support for passage and said that the company will move forward, as promised, to shut down its money-losing Three Mile Island reactor this fall.

“Today is a difficult day for our employees, who were hopeful that state policymakers would support valuing carbon-free nuclear energy the same way they value other forms of clean energy in time to save TMI from a premature closure,” Bryan Hanson, Exelon senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said in a statement.

The plant, which employs about 700 people near Harrisburg and produces a significant amount of the state’s carbon-free electricity, will shut down Sept. 30. The closure deals a financial blow to the municipality where it is the biggest employer, and taxpayer, and could derail Pennsylvania’s plans to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

State Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster) a co-chair of the Nuclear Caucus and co-sponsor of the legislation, also threw in the towel Wednesday on saving Exelon’s Unit 1 reactor.

“Unfortunately, it is clear at this point in time that there is not sufficient support to advance a proposal in time to preserve TMI,” Aument said in a statement.

“This is just a tough blow, devastating,” said John Levengood, president of Electricians Local 777 in Middletown, which represents about 280 reactor workers. “It’s a sad day for the state of Pennsylvania, honestly. Despicable. It didn’t even come up for a vote.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, who had not declared a position on the controversial nuclear rescue package, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” to learn of Exelon’s announcement and promised to support workers and the community surrounding the Dauphin County power plant.

“While I understand the operator is working to offer internal positions to these workers, we will not spare our resources to provide assistance to those who will be impacted.” he said.

Exelon Generation, which is headquartered in Kennett Square, successfully engineered state rescues in Illinois, New York and New Jersey, but not in Pennsylvania, which hosts the nation’s second-largest nuclear fleet behind Illinois.

In the face of a growing number of nuclear plant closures in America, the sponsors of Pennsylvania’s rescue had worked two years to cobble together a tenuous coalition of support. But the legislation fell flat almost immediately upon introduction, opposed by consumer advocates, some environmentalists, and the state’s natural gas industry, a deep-pocketed rival that also has substantial political clout.

The legislation would add a surcharge to customers bills to steer as much as $541 million of subsidies to clean-energy power producers, primarily nuclear generators. But most of the state’s five nuclear power plants are profitable, and opponents derided the rescue as a bailout that would weaken competitive power markets.

PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid, said the transmission system could withstand the loss of several reactors without imperiling reliability. But Three Mile Island’s closure will increase the state’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Unit 1 produces more zero-carbon electricity than all the state’s wind, solar and hydro plants combined, and it will likely be replaced by power produced from combusting natural gas, experts say.

Exelon acquired Unit 1 in 1999, two decades after the infamous nuclear accident that destroyed its twin in the nation’s worst commercial accident. The damaged reactor, owned by FirstEnergy Corp., is now dormant and its fuel removed. But it awaits a full decommissioning in tandem with the shutdown of Exelon’s plant.

Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, a Harrisburg nuclear watchdog group, said attention will now be aimed at pressuring Three Mile Island’s two owners to accelerate decommissioning, rather than taking six decades to complete the task, as Exelon announced last month.

“We’re at the point of no return,” Epstein said. “The plant is going to shut down. We need to clean up the site.”

Exelon placed a June 1 deadline for the legislature to act on a nuclear rescue because the company needs advance notice to either order new uranium fuel to be installed this fall, or to schedule workers to begin shutting the plant down. With only three legislative session days remaining in May, the prospect of passage was fast disappearing.

“Although we see strong support in Harrisburg and throughout Pennsylvania to reduce carbon emissions and maintain the environmental and economic benefits provided by nuclear energy, we don’t see a path forward for policy changes before the June 1 fuel purchasing deadline for TMI,” said Kathleen Barrón, Exelon senior vice president, government and regulatory affairs and public policy.

Exelon announced in 2017 that the station would prematurely shut down, absent financial support, because of economic challenges and “market flaws” that fail to recognize the benefits from the state’s zero-carbon nuclear energy plants.

Largest employer

Three Mile Island is the largest employer, and largest taxpayer, in Londonderry Township, which began belt-tightening efforts two years ago in anticipation of the plant’s possible closure. Still, Wednesday’s announcement was a blow, said Steve Letavic, the township manager.

“We’re heartbroken,” he said. “We know these people. They’re our neighbors. They were never a nameless, faceless corporation.”

“Look around, whenever a big employer shuts down, there’s a devastating regional impact,,” said Letavic. “There’s no viable industry in Pennsylvania that is coming forward to replace 675 good-paying jobs.”

Three Mile Island and other single-unit nuclear power stations are 22 percent more expensive to operate than multi-unit sites, such as Exelon’s Limerick and Peach Bottom plants, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Many of the reactors across the nation slated for early retirement are single-unit plants, such as Exelon’s Oyster Creek Generating Station in New Jersey, which shut down last year.

Wednesday’s decision will not end the nuclear debate in Pennsylvania. FirstEnergy has announced it plans to retire its twin-unit Beaver Valley Power Station in Western Pennsylvania in 2020 and 2021. But the industry has warned that the economic pressures will continue to mount on the industry.

“Make no mistake, these pressures will soon be felt by all of the other nuclear plants across Pennsylvania, and unfortunately Exelon’s announcement only serves to reinforce that conclusion,” said Aument, who promised to continue to work on a “better solution.”

Nuclear supporters argue that the industry is a big employer in Pennsylvania and that the industry produces 93 percent of the state’s zero-carbon electricity.

The closure of the Three Mile Island plant will make it more challenging to meet Wolf’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2025, from 2005 levels.

“I still believe it is essential to continue this important conversation about preserving and growing Pennsylvania’s carbon-free energy footprint,” the governor said in his statement. “I remain hopeful that a consensus on a path forward can be reached in the coming weeks.”


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