Three Mile Island fights once again for its nuclear survival
MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Workers are setting the groundwork at Three Mile Island for a maintenance outage this month to replenish Unit 1’s uranium core, an elaborately choreographed event that requires 1,500 contract workers and injects millions of dollars into the local economy.
But TMI’s biennial refueling outage has a tinge of melancholy this year: It could be the last time fuel is ever loaded into Unit 1, whose neighboring twin reactor shut down in 1979 after the nation’s worst commercial nuclear accident.
Exelon Generation, the company that operates Unit 1, announced in May that it plans to prematurely shut down the power plant in 2019 unless the Pennsylvania legislature rescues the nuclear industry, which is struggling to compete in a world where newfound natural-gas resources have driven down electricity prices.
“We’ve got almost 300 people over there who are scared to death they’re going to lose their jobs,” said John Levengood, president of Electricians Local 777, which represents about 40 percent of the plant’s full-time employees. “That’s my biggest concern.”
As workers erected scaffolding around the plant for the upcoming outage, nuclear-industry lobbyists are erecting a political foundation 12 miles up the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg to secure support for the state’s five nuclear plants — a bailout, opponents say. It’s unclear when or in what form nuclear subsidies will be proposed, but it’s likely that electricity customers, not taxpayers, would be asked to pay the cost through higher rates.
The nuclear industry, by far the largest producer of zero-carbon-emission electrical power, is facing a similar struggle nationwide as plans for new reactors get scrapped and existing plants battle to compete in states with deregulated power markets. Some wonder whether natural gas, with a history of price volatility and occasional scarcity, has really entered a golden era of reliable abundance with the development of hydraulically fractured shale gas.
TMI’s 675 total employees remain committed to operating the plant safely and efficiently even though their future hangs in the balance, said Thomas P. Haaf, the Unit 1 plant manager.
“Our folks are optimistic that something might change, but they’re committed that even if we are going to shut down in 2019, they’re going to be the best plant that ever shut down,” Haaf said on a recent tour of the plant, located just outside Middletown in Londonderry Township. “That’s the only thing we can do.”
The 852-megawatt reactor has lost $300 million in the last five years, even though it operates 96 percent of the time and is one of Exelon’s most efficient units.
“We’re not going to be able to cost-cut ourselves out of this situation we’re in,” said David Fein, an Exelon Corp. vice president for state government affairs. “There needs to be some policy changes to address the market flaws and market challenges we’re seeing.”
Exelon and its allies have marshaled an arsenal of arguments about the dangers of allowing the plant to shut down: The loss of TMI’s $60 million payroll; a reduction in local and state tax payments from the plants; and the environmental and competitive risks of losing a reliable source of emissions-free energy.
But an alliance of large energy customers and the natural-gas industry, which stands to gain share in the power-generation sector with the closure of nuclear plants, say government should not change electricity-market rules to favor one industry.
Opponents in Illinois and New York have sued to overturn the subsidies, but the states and the nuclear industry have prevailed in the first round of appeals. Neither bailout has gone into effect, so it’s difficult to test the competing claims that the subsidies will have either a negligible or a catastrophic impact on consumers.
In Pennsylvania, the debate may not be resolved until after next year’s statewide elections, and is being closely monitored in other states, said Martin Williams, business manager of Boilermakers Local 13 in Philadelphia, which represents about two dozen TMI contract workers.