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Will state take action to prevent closure of Three Mile Island? Some groups oppose nuclear 'bailout'

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 6/6/18

As local officials hoping to save Three Mile Island warned policy-makers May 30 that “the clock is ticking,” momentum could be building toward the state coming up with a solution to avert …

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Will state take action to prevent closure of Three Mile Island? Some groups oppose nuclear 'bailout'

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As local officials hoping to save Three Mile Island warned policy-makers May 30 that “the clock is ticking,” momentum could be building toward the state coming up with a solution to avert the planned shutdown of the nuclear power plant in Londonderry Township.

State Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Lower Swatara, sounded optimistic that legislation aimed at preserving TMI and the four other nuclear plants in Pennsylvania could emerge out of the General Assembly’s Nuclear Energy Caucus in early 2019.

The caucus, of which Mehaffie is among 80 members, “is doing the right things to make sure that we work toward some kind of resolution to this situation that we can keep our nuclear power plants open in Pennsylvania.”

Mehaffie made the comments after speaking at an event held on City Island on May 30 by Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania, a coalition of political and labor leaders from the region that formed after TMI owner Exelon Corp. announced on May 30, 2017, that TMI would be “prematurely retired” in September 2019.

Exelon said it would start decommissioning TMI at that time, unless the state comes up with a remedy to make TMI economically competitive with other forms of energy in Pennsylvania, including renewables like solar and wind, and natural gas.

No investments, no profit

Exelon has already stopped “investing capital” in TMI, a senior Exelon official said in testimony before the Nuclear Energy Caucus on April 17.

“We have not ordered fuel for the site. We’re going to run out the fuel in the core and by next September, we are going to start decommissioning that station,” according to testimony of Kathleen Barron, Exelon senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs and public policy.

TMI has not made a profit in six years, due to what Exelon contends are “persistently low wholesale energy prices and market rules that treat polluting plants the same as emissions-free sources of power.”

The latest reminder of the unprofitability of TMI came May 24, when regional grid operator PJM again chose not to purchase electricity from TMI.

Audubon, Pennsylvania-based PJM holds capacity auctions each year, to ensure enough power generation resources are available to meet demand in its region covering all or part of 13 states and the District of Columbia.

TMI has failed to clear the past four auctions held by PJM, meaning TMI is not able to produce electricity at a price that the market is willing to pay.

The May 30 event at City Island was similar to several other public events the coalition has had over the past year.

Officials again recited the numbers that they say tell the story of TMI’s economic contribution to the local area and to the region — 675 full-time jobs, plus another 1,200 skilled union laborers coming to the plant for 30 days every other year for refueling and maintenance; a $60 million annual payroll, a combined $1 million in tax revenue paid to Lower Dauphin School District, Londonderry Township and Dauphin County, and $300,000 a year going to local charities.

Where are jobs going?

The event was also timed to remind policy makers that it has been a year without action since Exelon’s announcement that it intends to close TMI in September 2019.

“Once these nuclear power plants close, that decision is irreversible. They will never reopen,” said coalition co-chairman and Dauphin County Commissioner Mike Pries. “We keep hearing those jobs will be absorbed somewhere. Well, we ask where? Where are those 675 employees going? Where are those 1,200 union laborers going every other September? Who is filling those 36,000 room nights every other September? Who is paying Lower Dauphin School District, the Dauphin County residents and Londonderry Township the $1 million a year in taxes? Those are numbers that are irreplaceable.”

A coalition statement issued at the event referred to the need for “federal and state energy policy solutions” to avert the closure, but it appears that TMI supporters are chiefly looking to the state.

Pries said that the possibility of state action to preserve TMI may be advanced by the March 28 announcement by FirstEnergy that it intends to close its Beaver Valley plant in 2021.

“Having Beaver Valley now involved with potential closure in Pittsburgh puts (the issue) on more people’s radar,” Pries said. “Before I think it was more of a central Pennsylvania issue, a TMI issue. It’s a big state, 203 state representatives, 50 state senators. I think now that it’s an issue that is happening on both sides of the state, more people are taking notice.”

Forty percent of all energy generated in Pennsylvania comes from nuclear power, second only among the states to the amount of power generated from nuclear in Illinois, Barron said during her testimony before the Nuclear Energy Caucus on April 17.

In the next three years, three-quarters of the electrical generating capacity of nuclear plants in Pennsylvania will be gone, if the shutdowns involving TMI and FirstEnergy are carried out, Barron said.

She said TMI is facing “an unwinnable situation” regarding the plant being able to compete with other sources of energy in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has “16 other types of technologies that are receiving support from the state for being clean, and (TMI) is competing against power plants that emit pollution that do not have to bear the cost of their pollution.”

“That is not competition, that is not a level playing field, and the reason we know it is not just TMI is because of the decision by Beaver Valley and by other plants across the map” to prematurely shut down.

In terms of increased carbon emissions, losing Pennsylvania’s five nuclear power plants would be the same as adding 8 million cars to roads in the state, York County Commissioner Chris Reilly said at the May 30 event.

Three Mile Island alone produces more “zero emission energy” than all the state’s renewable energy sources combined, he added.

Groups oppose “bailout”

However, a number of groups in Pennsylvania are opposed to what they call a “bailout” of TMI.

One such organization, Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts, says that the state stepping in to save TMI will lead to “higher energy costs for all Pennsylvania consumers, including senior citizens, manufacturers, small businesses and public institutions,” the group said in response to TMI failing to clear the PJM auction on May 24.

“Pennsylvania consumers should not be on the hook to prop up TMI, which is outdated and uncompetitive,” according to Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts, which describes itself as a “diverse coalition of Pennsylvania citizens’ groups, power generators, and energy, business and manufacturing associations.”

Group spokesman Steve Kratz says Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts takes issue with the notion that “nuclear energy is going away if the government does not intervene.”

“The markets are saying that older and less efficient plants” such as TMI and Beaver Valley should be retired, Kratz said.

But the three other nuclear plants in Pennsylvania — Limerick, Peach Bottom and Talen Energy Susquehanna —- all remain profitable and continue clearing the PJM auction, Kratz said.

“Despite claims by Exelon and others, nuclear power will continue to be part of Pennsylvania’s power generation mix even if TMI is decommissioned, and it will take several years and hundreds of employees to complete the decommissioning process,” the group said in the May 24 statement. “Pennsylvania’s electricity grid will remain reliable and resilient, further bolstered by seven state-of-the-art power generation projects currently under construction in the state totaling more than $7 billion of private investment and supporting thousands of construction jobs.”

Nor will economic benefits to the region from TMI go away overnight in 2019. “Hundreds” of jobs will still be needed at TMI for decommissioning for at least the next decade, Kratz said.

He cited a June 4 published report where Exelon itself is saying it will take 60 years to complete decommissioning its Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey, which ceases operations in October.

Reduced property taxes would be subject to Exelon seeking a reduced assessment for TMI, he noted. Following the 1979 accident, the owners succeeded in lowering to zero the assessment for the stricken Unit 2 reactor, Kratz said.

However, the “negative impacts” locally of closing TMI don’t justify charging ratepayers across the state “hundreds of millions” more each year to keep open a plant that PJM says “can close without consequence to reliability or prices. Businesses across the state shut down every day and the government doesn’t step in to bail them out and put the burden on millions (of consumers) to pay higher electric bills.”