TMI shuts down, local officials predict economic hit
LONDONDERRY TOWNSHIP— The mood Friday was somber as about 50 area residents, local officials and Exelon employees looked out at the steam billowing from Three Mile Island's towers one last time.
Forty-five years since Unit 1 began operating, the Dauphin County nuclear plant closed prematurely — though it could have generated electricity for another 15 years or more, said county Commissioner Mike Pries.
"I stand before you today with a very heavy heart," he said.
At noon Friday, Sept. 20, TMI produced its final watt — setting a new site record for 709 continuous days of problem-free operation — as it was disconnected from the power grid, said Dave Marcheskie, communications manager for Unit 1.
The site of a partial meltdown at its Unit 2 reactor in 1979, TMI was an inflection point for nuclear power in the United States.
Two years ago, Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania — a coalition formed to advocate for saving the plant — sounded the alarm, and last year announced the clock was ticking.
Following its closure, surrounding communities are set to lose the benefits of an annual $60 million in payroll and about $1 million in property taxes.
"Probably (one of things that I found most) difficult is hearing the stories from our neighbors and our friends who have to pick up roots, dislodge their families and move to other parts of the state, to other states or even other parts of the country," said Anna Dale, chair of the board of supervisors in Londonderry Township.
Environmental impacts will surely be felt, too, Dale said, citing a recent American Lung Association article in which the Harrisburg-York-Lebanon metro area ranked 24th most polluted in the nation — a small step up from 15th last year.
"And it was all avoidable," Pries said, referring to recent legislation that could have essentially subsidized the plant through alternative energy credits.
"I can't tell you how sorry I am," said state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, R-Dauphin, who sponsored one of those bills, HB 11. "We the Legislature let you down."
Mehaffie said there has been no movement on the bill but much discussion with environmental groups, which are open to nuclear being in the mix. Finding a consensus is key, and now it's up to First Energy Solutions — owner of the Beaver Valley plant due to shut down in early 2021 — to work with the Legislature.
"It always comes down to a cost factor," Mehaffie said, while noting that a pro-jobs legislation package that passed without his vote encourages manufacturers using methane to invest in Pennsylvania through a tax credit, which he says supports one subsidy over another.
"I was raised on wages earned at TMI," said Joe Gusler, president of the Central Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council. "I'm angry because our Legislature failed to do what was necessary to keep TMI operating."
Born and raised in Harrisburg, Don Robson — now living in Marietta, Lancaster County,— said he never would have imagined the plant would shut down. He lived through the accident in 1979 and said he's always ridden his bike past the stacks.
"I am very disappointed," he said of the closure. He and his son, Don Robson Jr., came out Friday in support of the plant, remembering it as a bedrock of the community.
Friday's closure was not a surprise to local officials, said Londonderry Township manager Stephan Letavic. He said that he's been preparing for the transition since the announced closure two years ago, but it will still be difficult.
Londonderry Township has adjusted its budget, left five full-time positions vacant, cut the township's parks programming and identified a corridor zoned for redevelopment to recruit some businesses to locate in the township, he said.
"I think there's going to be a negative economic impact to us for the next three to five years, at least." Letavic said.
And there's more than just the 675 jobs lost at the plant, but also the 1,200 skilled union laborers who would have arrived Friday at the plant for its biannual refueling — staying on average 36,000 room nights.
Letavic said it's not only an economic loss, however, but a human loss. Exelon was not a nameless, faceless corporation — "we know these folks," he said.
"I am pleased to share that every employee who wanted to remain with the company has secured another position within Exelon," Marcheskie said.
Effects will be felt long-term, Letavic said.
Communities surrounding Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station — the Vernon, Vermont, plant that closed in 2014 — has still not recovered financially, he said. And other factors might come into play that could extend the recovery period in the communities near TMI, especially if a recession hits.
Mehaffie said in order to prevent a closure in Beaver Valley, legislation would likely have to be passed by August.