TMI closure was 'inevitable,' lawmakers say

Photos of the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility. January 31, 2018.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Three Mile Island will close in September as legislation that would have subsidized nuclear energy stalled in the state Legislature.

Exelon Generation announced it would be shutting down the Unit 1 reactor of its Dauphin County plant as scheduled. Officials had previously given a deadline of June 1, but with no movement in the Legislature, company officials made the call early.

"We don’t see a path forward for policy changes before the June 1 fuel purchasing deadline for TMI,” said Kathleen Barrón, Exelon senior vice president, government and regulatory affairs and public policy, in a statement.

The two bills — HB 11 in the House and SB 510 in the Senate — would have incorporated nuclear providers into a credit system, along with renewable producers such as wind, solar and hydro, that would bring in additional revenue.

"In the Senate we were very close to moving out of committee and positioning (the bill) on the floor," said bill sponsor Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, but "not close to the 26 votes to move out of the Senate."

Without that revenue, the plant — operating with only one reactor after Unit 2 closed in 1979 following a partial meltdown — would not be profitable enough to sustain itself in the competitive market, according to the company.

“Today I received the worst news I’ve received since taking office as the state representative for the 106th District in January 2017," said state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, R-Dauphin County, in a statement.

Mehaffie sponsored the House version of the nuclear subsidy bill. 

His father helped build the plant, and it's painful to think it will now sit idle, he added.

“Perhaps most frustrating are my feelings about the inaction of the body I serve in, the state Legislature," he stated.

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The bills have faced substantial opposition from Democrats, Republicans and the powerful natural gas industry alike. Many Democrats refused to back the package unless it contained substantial new support for wind and solar. Some Republicans declined to back more government tinkering with the energy market. 

"The ability to remain competitive is important, and with the loss of the reactor covering overhead, making a profit and having viable operation was not possible," said state Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill/Dauphin counties.

HB 11 sits in the House Consumer Affairs Committee, which this past month held four public hearings. Committee Chairman Brad Roae has called it one of the most complex issues he's seen.

Minority committee chairman Rep. Robert Matzie, D-Beaver/Allegheny counties, stated the bill is "as complex and as far reaching as anything we’ve seen in decades" and asserted that the federal government foisted the burden of the nuclear industry onto the state.

He said minimal investment from Exelon in its own plant would have allowed more time.

"In my opinion, there has been significant movement toward a potential resolution over the last few weeks, making this announcement even more concerning," he said in a statement.

Though Aument is hopeful that removal of pressure from the TMI deadline helps, he's worried the bill would lose a lot of supporters who were tied to the plant's fate.

"My concern," Tobash said, "had been that the TMI operation was going to close regardless of our action and it was only a matter of time."

FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2006, file photo, cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant are reflected in the Susquehanna River in this image taken with a slow shutter speed in Middletown, Pa. The owner of Three Mile Island, site of the United States' worst commercial nuclear power accident, is acknowledging in a Wednesday, May 8, 2019 statement that it is unlikely to get a financial rescue from Pennsylvania and says it plans to go through with a shutdown starting June 1. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin/Lebanon counties, said TMI's closure was "inevitable." 

TMI employs 675 workers, with about 1,200 during scheduled refueling outages, which would have rippling effects on local businesses and direct impact on communities surrounding the plant that rely on taxes and donations from the plant.

Londonderry Township, which houses the plant, receives about $1 million in annual tax revenue between Dauphin County, Lower Dauphin School District and Londonderry Township, township Supervisor Steve Kopp has said.

Community officials in Royalton, Lower Swatara Township and Conoy Township, in Lancaster County, recently voiced their support for the plant at a Dauphin County rally.

"It’s a sad day in Pa., that’s for sure," said Conoy Township Chairman Steve Mohr, when reached Wednesday. 

Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statement of support for workers and affected communities and said he would not skimp on resources for assistance. Wolf never took a position on the legislation. 

Many have spoken in favor of TMI's environmental benefits, large number of high-wage jobs and reliable performance on the grid, but opponents said despite the impact of a big business closing, they could not support a bill that disrupts the competitive market.

"It is time we stop throwing good money into a situation that is never going to be profitable," Helm wrote in an email.

Exelon spokesman Dave Marcheskie said officials called the closure now to give employees more time to adjust to the decision. Even if legislation is eventually passed, there's “no reversing the decision for TMI,” he said.

Should the bill come up for a vote, Tobash said he would continue to have "grave concerns" about picking favorites in the market, and though environmental benefits are definitely a factor, it's not the government's role to stop market forces from affecting businesses.

State Rep. Dave Hickernell, R-Lancaster/Dauphin counties, disagreed, saying the closure is based on "short-term energy cost profiles that are unlikely to hold true in the long term."

"We must think in terms of 25 to 50 years, not the last gas well we tapped or array of solar panels installed," he said in a statement.

Though losing the facility sooner rather than later is a disappointment, the news comes at a time when the economy is in a good place for jobs and the the market has many options with additional energy resources, Tobash said.

More than 200 employees of TMI are from Lancaster County, but Mohr said they're "energetic, they're educated, and they're go-getters" and should not have a problem finding another position. Exelon has said it would secure positions for any workers who wished to relocate.

"I do have compassion for any TMI employee who may lose their job," Helm wrote. "We will continue to work with the community and schools that will also be affected by this closing."