Three Mile Island will close Sept. 30, as nuclear rescue legislation stalls in Harrisburg

Cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

This article originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

The Three Mile Island Unit 1 reactor near Harrisburg will close as planned Sept. 30, its owner Exelon said Wednesday.

The company had hoped for a state subsidy law to pass by June 1 in order to help keep the plant open but said that doesn’t appear possible in the few legislative voting days that remain.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have been discussing ways to aide the state’s nuclear plants for more than two years, and there are two bills pending in the House and Senate. Neither has moved out of committee.

“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.

Two years ago, Exelon said it intended to shut down Three Mile Island’s unprofitable Unit 1 reactor in the fall of 2019. However, the company also said it would try to keep the plant online if Pennsylvania followed the lead of other states — including New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut – that have approved billions of dollars in subsidies to aide their own nuclear plants.

In recent years, the nuclear industry has struggled with stagnant demand for electricity, competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables, and high operating costs.

The two bills pending in Harrisburg would each provide roughly half-a-billion dollars in annual subsidies to nuclear plants. The industry argues the current design of the power market is flawed, because it’s focused on delivering the cheapest electricity in the short-term, and it fails to consider the valuable long-term assets nuclear power brings to the table — like carbon-free emissions.

But the bills faced strong opposition from a diverse array of interests, including consumer advocates, environmental groups, business and manufacturing groups, and fossil fuel interests. Among other things, opponents argue the subsidies are unnecessarily costly for ratepayers, distort competition, and do not do enough to advance cleaner energy alternatives.

Dave Marcheskie, site communications manager for Three Mile Island, said news of the closure Wednesday was difficult for the plant’s approximately 600 workers.

“A lot of us hoped it wouldn’t be this soon,” he said. “But we also knew the political realities of the situation.”

The political, historical, and energy landscape of Pennsylvania made nuclear subsidies a tougher sell here, compared to other states. Three Mile Island was the only one of the state’s five nuclear plants that are unprofitable, and 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at its Unit 2 reactor — an incident that caused an estimated 80,000 people to evacuate central Pennsylvania. The accident halted the growth of the U.S. nuclear power industry for decades.

And unlike other states, Pennsylvania has a powerful natural gas industry, which has been building gas-fired power plants that compete against nuclear stations.

Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts, a gas industry-funded group, said in a statement that Exelon never should have demanded subsidies from the state legislature.

“Exelon Generation has made a business decision to begin the process of ending nuclear generation operations at Three Mile Island rather than invest the corporation’s billions of dollars in profits to support the plant, community and its employees,” the group said in a press release.

Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 reactor will continue to operate through the end of September when the plant will shut down for the decommissioning process. Marcheskie said current staffing levels will draw down until 2022 when about 50 people will remain on the site. All the affected workers have been guaranteed jobs with Exelon, but he said they may have to move out of state. The company owns two other nuclear stations in Pennsylvania — Limerick in Montgomery County and Peach Bottom in York County.

Gov. Tom Wolf said he was disappointed to hear about the plant’s closure, noting that he has directed the state Department of Labor and Industry to engage with its workers about their futures.

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

Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin), sponsor of the House version of the nuclear bill, said the closure was the worst news he’s received since taking office in 2017.

“My thoughts are with the men and women who work at Three Mile Island and their families who received this devastating news today,” Mehaffie said in a statement. “Many of these people are not only my constituents; they are my friends, and my heart hurts for what they are going through.”

House Republican spokesman Mike Straub said the future of Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry affects the state’s economic, security and energy future. FirstEnergy’s Beaver Valley plant near Pittsburgh is also scheduled to close before its operating license expires, in 2021.

“The legislature continues to examine solutions that will grow a diverse and reliable energy portfolio for Pennsylvania’s future,” Straub wrote in an email.

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