Three Mile Island nuclear plant moves toward closure

  • By Marc Levy/The Associated Press
three_mile_island_air.jpg

A photo of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant taken from the air. (Tim Lambert/WITF)

*This story has been updated*

(Harrisburg) —  Three Mile Island, site of the United States’ worst commercial nuclear power accident, will begin a planned shutdown starting June 1 now that it is clear that it will not get a financial rescue from Pennsylvania, its owner said Wednesday.

Exelon Corp.’s statement comes two years after the Chicago-based energy giant said it would close the money-losing plant without what critics have called a bailout.

The fight over Three Mile Island and Pennsylvania’s four other nuclear power plants invigorated a debate over the “zero carbon emissions” characteristics of nuclear power in the age of global warming and in one of the nation’s largest fossil fuel-producing states.

Shutting down Three Mile Island will cut its life short by 15 years — it is licensed to operate through 2034. Its power is expected to be replaced by electricity from coal and natural gas-fired power plants that running below capacity in a saturated market. It will go off-line by Sept. 30, Exelon said.

In a statement, Kathleen Barrón, an Exelon senior vice president, said the company doesn’t see “a path forward for policy changes before the June 1 fuel purchasing deadline for TMI.”

A roughly $500 million package for Three Mile Island and Pennsylvania’s four other nuclear power plants has stalled without a vote in the Legislature, and Wednesday was the state Senate’s last scheduled session day of May.

Exelon and some of the bill’s other backers said they will continue working to win passage of a financial rescue for the other nuclear power plants, including one the company owns and another it splits with New Jersey-based PSEG.

Nuclear power plants around the U.S. have been struggling in recent years to compete with generating stations that burn plentiful and cheap natural gas to produce electricity. Exelon has won rescues in New Jersey, New York and Illinois, and had allies in organized labor. But in Pennsylvania it faced opposition from the state’s considerable natural gas industry, not to mention industrial users and consumer advocates.

Next door, in Ohio, lawmakers are embroiled in a debate over rescuing two FirstEnergy Corp. nuclear power plants.

Three Mile Island faced particularly difficult economics because the 1979 accident left it with just one reactor.

The rescue package split the leadership of the state Legislature’s Republican majorities, and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, never threw his support behind it. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, broadly said they would not go along with a rescue without significantly advancing the goals of renewable energies, such as wind and solar power, a prospect that Republicans did not embrace.

Without a climate change-motivated policy to make carbon-emitting energy sources more expensive, Exelon had argued that nuclear power should get paid a premium, much like solar and wind power does in Pennsylvania.

However, critics contended that ratepayers had already paid to build the nuclear power plants, and questioned whether a hobbled Three Mile Island is worth saving. They also pointed out that at least three nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania are viewed as profitable for the foreseeable future.

Exelon, meanwhile, drew accusations of greed.

Critics pointed to its balance sheet — Exelon reported $2 billion in profits last year — and contended that a bailout meant investing in outdated, inefficient and expensive power plants while benefiting shareholders of a profitable company on the backs of Pennsylvania ratepayers.

The company said it will offer jobs elsewhere in Exelon to Three Mile Island employees willing to relocate.

*An earlier version of this story is below*

(Harrisburg) — The owner of Three Mile Island, site of the United States’ worst commercial nuclear power accident, says it now appears certain it will not get a financial rescue from the commonwealth and said it will go ahead with a planned shutdown starting June 1.

Exelon Corp.’s statement comes two years after the Chicago-based energy giant said it would close the money-losing plant in Dauphin County without what critics have called a bailout. It’s licensed to operate through 2034.

“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,” said Bryan Hanson, Exelon senior vice president and chief nuclear officer.

Hanson said a position will offered elsewhere in Exelon to every employee who wishes to stay with the company and is willing to relocate.

A roughly $500 million package for Three Mile Island and Pennsylvania’s four other nuclear power plants has stalled in the Legislature.

Repubican Representative Tom Mehaffie of Dauphin County is the author of the House version. He said today’s news is the worst he’s received since taking office. ‘

“Perhaps most frustrating are my feelings about the inaction of the body I serve in, the state Legislature. I didn’t run for this office so I could name bridges and attend ribbon-cuttings; I ran to make a real impact on the lives of my constituents,” he said in a statement. “I did believe, and still do, that House Bill 11 has the ability to do that. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues in the Legislature ran out the clock, and the loss of 675 family-sustaining jobs in Dauphin County is on them.”

Exelon has won rescues in three other states, but in Pennsylvania it faced opposition from the state’s natural gas industry.

Three Mile Island faces particularly difficult economics because the 1979 accident left it with just one reactor.

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