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End of nuclear dream? Three Mile Island plant faces closure

31 May 2017

In another indicator that expensive and dangerous nuclear energy is on its way out, Exelon Corp announced on Tuesday that the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in the US will close in 2019 unless the state of Pennsylvania comes to its financial rescue.

Thus, cheap natural gas might do what the worst commercial nuclear power accident in US history could not: put Three Mile Island out of business.

The plant was the site of a terrifying partial meltdown at its Unit 2 in 1979, and that unit has since remained defunct. Only Unit 1 is still functioning.

Nuclear power plants around the US have been struggling in recent years to compete with power generating stations that burn natural gas, which is now plentiful and inexpensive in the country.

The Chicago-based energy company's announcement came after what it called more than five years of losses at the single-reactor plant, and Three Mile Island's recent failure to be selected as a guaranteed supplier of power to the regional electric grid. Exelon will take a charge of as much as $110 million this year related to the operation and planned shutdown.

Exelon wants Pennsylvania to give nuclear power the kind of preferential treatment and premium payments that are extended to renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar. It has not said how much it wants.

In its statement, Exelon warned that amidst ''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.''

The announcement leaned heavily on the economic impact of the shutdown, which Exelon says will mean layoffs for as many as 675 workers directly employed at the site as well as the loss of ''more than $1 million in state property taxes and more than $300,000 in local community giving each year.''

Three Mile Island is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate through 2034, so the shutdown would come 15 years early.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has made no commitment to a bailout. In a statement on Tuesday, Wolf said he is concerned about layoffs at Three Mile Island and open to discussions about the future of nuclear power.

Nuclear bailouts have won approval in Illinois and New York, but the potential for higher utility bills in Pennsylvania is generating resistance from rival energy companies, manufacturers and consumer advocates, The Los Angeles Times reports.

In fact, as ABC News points out, the chronic malady of American nuclear plants is that they're too hard to operate and simply not competitive. It's that mismatch of cost that helps account for recent shutdown decisions such as the pending closure in California of Pacific Gas & Electric's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and the 2013 abandonment of San Onofre by Southern California Edison after a botched upgrade.

Around the US, nuclear plants have been hammered by the natural gas boom. In December, Illinois approved $235 million a year for Exelon to prop up nuclear plants in the Quad Cities and Clinton, six months after the company threatened to shut them down.

FirstEnergy Corp has said it could decide next year to sell or close its three nuclear plants - Davis-Besse and Perry in Ohio and Beaver Valley in Pennsylvania. PSEG of New Jersey, which owns all or parts of four nuclear plants, has said it won't operate ones that are long-term money losers.

Not so clean
David Hughes, president of the Pittsburgh-based consumer group Citizen Power, told LA Times the notion that nuclear power is clean energy is laughable.

"It's a myth, and they're trying any way they can to get more money out of ratepayers," he said.

In addition to contending that nuclear power can help fight climate change better than gas or coal, Exelon and other energy companies have argued that their plants are big employers and sources of tax revenue.

"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," Chris Crane, Exelon president and CEO, said in the statement.

1979 panic
Built during a golden age for nuclear power, Three Mile Island's Unit 1 went online in 1974 and Unit 2 in 1978, coughing steam into the air above its sliver of land in the Susquehanna River, about 10 miles from Harrisburg.

In March 1979, equipment failure and operator errors led to a partial core meltdown of Unit 2, leading to several days of fear and prompting 144,000 people to flee their homes amid conflicting or ill-informed statements from utility and government officials.

Scientists worried at one point that a hydrogen bubble forming inside the reactor would explode with catastrophic consequences.

Experts have come to no firm conclusion about the health effects or the amount of radiation released, though government scientists have said the maximum individual dosage was not enough to cause health problems.

Regardless, the accident badly undermined support for nuclear power. No nuclear plant that was proposed after the accident has been successfully completed and put into operation in the US.

The damaged reactor has been mothballed, but the other reactor is still in use. Exelon says the operating costs for just the one unit are high, further straining Three Mile Island's financial health.

Pennsylvania is the nation's No 2 nuclear power state, after Illinois.

Because of the flood of natural gas on the market, a lot of it from the Northeast's Marcellus Shale formation, dozens of new gas-fired plants are coming online or planned. At the same times, states are putting more emphasis on renewable energy and efficiency.

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