More greenhouse gases: What to expect after TMI's closure

A closure event for the Three Mile Island took place near the facility Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. The event was sponsored by Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania, a coalition formed in support of the state's nuclear power facilities. Bill Kalina photo

Three Mile Island shut down Sept. 20, ending a two-year battle to save the Dauphin County nuclear plant, and there has been no shortage of predictions about what comes next.

In reviewing four other recent nuclear plant closures in the U.S., The York Dispatch found that carbon emissions did increase as more natural gas plants came online or boosted production to fill the nuclear gap, consumer prices remained relatively unaffected by the closures and local economies that took a hit have rebounded — though never fully getting back to where they were.

The topic of conversation among many activists, officials, legislators and community members during the past two years was what would happen if TMI were to close.

Some said the loss of employees will always have an impact, but communities will rebound, and the power grid will still see reliable energy. Others said natural gas is what fills that void, adding a significant amount of carbon emissions to the environment.

Though there is no crystal ball for what the future holds without TMI, the four other nuclear plant closures offer some insight.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, in San Clemente, California, closed in 2013.

Crystal River Nuclear Plant, in Citrus County, Florida; and Kewaunee Power Station, in Carlton, Wisconsin, also closed in 2013. Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, in Vernon, Vermont, shut down in 2014.

Statewide emissions data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration in the years following the plant closures showed total carbon emissions rising initially in California and Florida before dropping again.

Duke Energy, owner of Florida's Crystal River Nuclear Plant, constructed a large combined gas power plant to offset the loss of nuclear after the plant closed.

As nuclear plants have closed, gas plants have been tapped to fill the gap in generation, as it's easy to ramp up nearby plants not operating at capacity.

“I think we’ve seen similar effects on an international scale,” said Jordan Haverly, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In Japan, after the Fukushima reactors shut down following an accident caused by a tsunami, nuclear plants were being replaced largely with coal, since coal and gas do not have the intermittency problem that renewables do, he said.

Renewables such as hydro rely on battery storage, which is expensive, and resources are limited. Even California, which has the most battery storage capacity, could only use those batteries to power Los Angeles for 20 minutes, Haverly said.

Less reliability with renewables and no nuclear backup for gas and coal could put the power grid at risk in extreme weather situations.

With New England down from a peak of nine nuclear reactors to three with the closure of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, there's a risk to winter reliability, wrote Ellen Foley, spokeswoman for regional transmission organization ISO New England, in an email.

In California, total emissions shot up more than 11 million metric tons to about 59.4 million in 2012 but dropped as coal and natural gas emissions decreased in the years following and as hydroelectric generation shot up in 2016 and 2017, the most recent year of EIA data.

Though natural gas emissions were at a high of 66.2 million metric tons in Florida by 2017, total emissions dropped as coal emissions decreased.

"Coal is more carbon-intensive than natural gas, so emissions from natural gas do not rise proportionately to the decline in coal emissions," said Perry Lindstrom, EIA expert in U.S. carbon dioxide history and projections, in an email.

Historically, emissions tended to be much higher than they are now for each of these states, which Haverly said can be attributed to a couple of things — though there are fewer nuclear plants now, they are producing more power than they used to, and fossil fuels are now running cleaner. 

In Vermont and Wisconsin, emissions actually decreased the year following plant closures but then increased with the rise of natural gas generation — though in those two states, emissions are very low.

Wisconsin's emissions are less than 10 million metric tons, and Vermont's are less than 10,000 metric tons, in comparison to California and Florida, which have had highs of more than 50 million.

Anti-nuclear power plant demonstrators mass on the front steps of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Penn., April 8, 1979, urging a shut-down of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The plant had an accident, causing radiation to leak into the atmosphere. (AP Photo/Paul Vathis)

Hydro is a huge producer in Vermont, and in Wisconsin, a nuclear plant 10 miles from Kewaunee added solar to its complex to add more clean energy to replace the loss of nuclear.

The direct effect on consumers has been minimal.  Though energy prices have followed a general trend of increasing since the 1990s, that amount has not been exponential since plants closed, according to EIA data.

For example, in California, the average residential retail price in 2013 — a year after the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station stopped operating — was 16.23 cents per kilowatt hour compared with 18.31 in 2017.

"I would say the overall energy mix in the state is going to have a much more significant effect on energy rates" than any single plant closing, Haverly said.

With the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island's long-shuttered Unit 2 reactor this year, some people in the community are  looking to reduce the  decommissioning time of Unit 1 so both reactors can be cleaned up for good.

Recently, operators for both Vermont Yankee and Crystal River contracted with North Star Group Services for more cost-effective decommissioning, which would return leftover funds to consumers sooner than it would with a longer decommissioning process.

More:'Neighbors to a waste dump': Public begs for earlier TMI decommissioning

More:Official: TMI decommissioning could take decades

“Vernon was very lucky,” said town administrator Michelle Pong, explaining that the original owner had predicted it would be 30 to 60 years before decommissioning, but North Star — which bought the plant — said it could be done safely in 10 years.

TMI and Kewaunee are under SAFSTOR — an extended dormancy period that prevents redevelopment for decades.

Carlton board Chairman David Hardtke noted the Wisconsin town is missing out on two miles of prime lake frontage, which could hurt the tax base down the road and said there also was a long period without regular communication early in that process.

“Once the plant closed, it’s like they forgot about informing us,” he said.

Pong also said the economic and personal impact of losing a plant cannot be overlooked.

In this April 29, 2019 photo, workers test a spray to be used for controlling contaminated dust in the decommissioning process at Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vt. In January, privately held NorthStar Group Services completed the purchase of Vermont Yankee from New Orleans-based Entergy after federal and state regulators approved the sale of the reactor, closed since 2014. It marked the first permanent transfer of an operating license to a nuclear cleanup specialist for accelerated decommissioning. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

More:Millions on the line for neighboring municipalities if TMI closes, local officials say

“We lost our baseball coaches and our volunteers of the PTA and Girl Scout leaders; parents lost their kids who moved away…that intangible stuff you really do start to feel,” she said.

Carlton, Wisconsin and Vernon, Vermont, are both primarily agricultural, with a population similar to Londonderry Township, where TMI is located. 

“Even though we’re certainly tightening the purse strings, taxes do still continue to go up,” Pong said.

Taxes in those communities increased initially, and property values took a dive when employees moved out but have rebounded. However, the loss of high-paying jobs and contribution to the economy has taken its toll.

Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, received a $500,000 settlement from Dominion Energy, the owner of the plant, to be paid over 10 years to replace lost tax revenue.

Citrus County, Florida, where the Crystal River nuclear plant was located, is more suburban, with a population of about 150,000 people.

That county still lost 30% of its tax base, and the property tax revenue went down by the same amount, resulting in a significant tax increase, said county administrator Randy Oliver.

Ken Frink, city manager of nearby Crystal River, said the loss of the plant  also  was intermingled with a recession — though there was definitely an impact from the loss of high-paying jobs.

"I don’t think it will ever really fully rebound," Frink said.