Expected legislation might save Three Mile Island

A Monday, May 22, 2017, file photo shows cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Exelon Corp., the owner of Three Mile Island, site of the United States' worst commercial nuclear power accident, said Monday, May 29, 2017, it will shut down the plant in 2019 unless it receives a financial rescue from Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Two state lawmakers plan to introduce legislation within the next two weeks that might keep the Three Mile Island nuclear plant operational beyond its scheduled September closure, but opponents call it a "bailout."

Exelon Generation — which owns the Dauphin County plant's Unit 1 reactor — must order fuel by June 1 or begin an irreversible decommissioning process.

"There is no winding back the clock," said state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie III, R-Dauphin County. The company will not prepare for a refuel without new policy in place.

Mehaffie and state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, are planning to sponsor bills in their respective chambers that would incorporate nuclear energy into the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act — a 2004 law that requires a percentage of electricity to come from alternative sources. 

"We cannot comment on whether the legislation will be sufficient to prevent the premature retirement of TMI until the bill is introduced," Exelon spokesman Dave Marcheskie wrote in an email.

But since nuclear energy sources produce 93 percent of the state's zero-carbon electricity, it should be put on equal footing with the 16 other environmentally beneficial energy sources included in the law, he wrote.

More:OPED: Nuclear energy has many benefits

The bill would add any source that produces electricity with a carbon-free footprint, similar to a California law passed in September requiring 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045.

Three Mile Island is the site of the nation's worst nuclear accident. In 1979, the plant's Unit 2 reactor experienced a partial meltdown. Exelon owns and operates only the Unit 1 reactor.


Avoiding a monopoly: “No one energy source should ever dominate the market,” Mehaffie said.

Market prices set by regional grid operator PJM Interconnection are based on gas and don't account for bottom-line costs borne by nuclear operators, he said, adding that in 2004, gas prices were high, and no one anticipated them to drop so low.

Illinois, New Jersey and New York also recently approved subsidies for nuclear power.

But the idea of a nuclear "bailout" has drawn criticism from large industrial electricity users, ratepayer advocates, the natural gas industry,  AARP, the National Federation of Independent Business and anti-nuclear activists.

More:Fight brewing over possible bailout of Three Mile Island nuclear plant

More:OPED: The real numbers behind Three Mile Island

Exelon made $3.77 billion in net profits in 2017 for its combined operations of 13 nuclear plants — including two others in the state, according to its most recent stockholder report.

Eric Epstein — chairman of Harrisburg-based nuclear watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert — opposes the legislation.

"They preach diversity, but they practice monopoly," he said, noting that the electricity market was deregulated in 1996 with a $9 billion bailout for nuclear, which already receives subsidies for its fuel, decommissioning and insurance — unlike other providers.

Economic impact: The state Legislature's Nuclear Energy Caucus believes updating the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act is the best option for keeping plants open and protecting job retention. 

Exelon employs more than 600 at Three Mile Island. 

The bipartisan nuclear caucus, co-chaired by four legislators, including Aument and Mehaffie, released a report in November showing that losing nuclear plants would cost the state about $4.6 billion annually.

"Gov. (Tom) Wolf is worried about the workers at possibly affected plants, their families and their communities that rely on these jobs, " said the governor's spokesman, J.J. Abbott, in an email. "He wants to do what he can to help them."

Wolf has acknowledged the need for a conversation about the state's energy economy, including the future of nuclear. And Abbott said he was looking forward to reviewing the legislation but wished to refrain from comment before seeing the exact language.

Other closures: Proponents also are worried about grid resiliency and environmental impact if nuclear is not in the mix. 

FirstEnergy Corp.'s Beaver Valley plant is due to close in 2021. Almost 25 percent of the state's nuclear generating capacity would be lost if both plants close prematurely, said Steve Aaron, spokesman for the community coalition Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania.

More:America’s oldest nuclear plant closing in September

Nuclear accounts for 42 percent of the state's electricity production, and Pennsylvania's other three plants are facing negative market conditions, he said. Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of nuclear power, The Associated Press has reported.

"The ripple effects will be felt far and wide," Aaron said.

Epstein counters that Three Mile Island and Beaver Valley cannot compete in the market because they are old and aging — and not as profitable as newer, larger plants.

He also believes there are greener energy sources, and since the market has excess capacity right now, the time is ripe to transition smaller nuclear plants off the grid. 

Epstein claims the amount of carbon emissions would have only risen 3 percent if natural gas replaced nuclear plants in 2015, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry trade group.

"Nuclear power is trying to remake itself as green, but it's brown," he said.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that almost 25 percent of the state's nuclear generating capacity would be lost if both Three Mile Island and Beaver Valley close prematurely.