OP-ED: Time's up for Three Mile Island

Joe Stafford
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)

To bail, or not to bail: That is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind of the General Assembly to suffer the slings and arrows from the loss of jobs, or to give subsidies against a sea of troubles at TMI, and by opposing, end nuclear power in the Susquehanna Valley.

Apologies to William Shakespeare for dragging Hamlet into the fray.

On Feb. 21, The York Dispatch reported the Pennsylvania General Assembly is considering keeping Three Mile Island operating.

Its owner, Exelon, announced an early permanent shutdown and ultimately the decommissioning of Plant 1, unless it gets financial support from the commonwealth.

To add to the sense of urgency, Exelon says it's a go-no-go situation unless support is guaranteed prior to June 1, when replacement fuel rods must be ordered.

Oh, please. Spare us the drama.

The latest brainstorm is to re-label nuclear power as alternative energy, which has been reserved until now for renewable sources, like wind and solar. Mining a finite amount of uranium from the earth and processing it with energy sort of fails that definition.

I'll bet the coal industry wishes it had thought of that first now that coal demand is dropping.

Then there's the favorable bias slipped into the debate by calling nuclear energy "zero carbon."

OK, there's no carbon dioxide emitted from the process of nuclear fission, but the plant facility still contributes CO2 to the atmosphere when 600 employees drive motor vehicles to and from the site. Then there's the thermal heat discharged into the air and nearby water that is a result of producing many megawatts of energy from any source. 

And here's another little-known fact that is misstated continually: The 1979 TMI incident is the nation's worst nuclear accident. It is not.

More:Expected legislation might save Three Mile Island

More:Pennsylvania should try to save nuclear plants, senator says

More:LETTER: TMI shutdown is overdue

On Jan. 3, 1961, a military reactor in eastern Idaho "blew up" as a result of a worker error. Two men were killed instantly by what was technically a steam explosion inside the reactor core. A third died within two hours. Had they survived the trauma of being struck by flying debris, the radiation released would have killed them anyway. The site area needed to be decontaminated. A web search of the SL-1 reactor accident explains it all. Compare that to TMI where no one died.

Then there's the misleading statement by Rep.Thomas Mehaffie on what regional electric grid operator PJM does relative to "market prices" to affect the TMI dilemma. The fact is, according to the PJM website, "PJM administers competitive wholesale electric power sales — similar to the way the stock market works."  

So, if TMI electric capacity is like worthless stock, why buy it? 

Mehaffie and other members of the legislative Nuclear Caucus need to check in with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), which regulates utilities and sets rates for consumers.

That's where this should play out — not through legislation.

Recommending subsidies is easy until someone asks, "How are we going to pay for this?" 

It's budget time now. There's always a fiscal note attached to any bill introduced. Will this be a line item in the budget this year?

Then there are the 600 jobs supposedly in jeopardy to impact the local and state economy.  A nuclear power plant is not like a steel mill where you can just turn off the blast furnace and close up shop — everybody goes home. TMI will be operating for years, maybe at a slightly reduced staff, but there's lots to do with good-paying jobs until every part is moved off site.

Advocate activist Eric Epstein from TMI Alert accurately points out that the nuclear industry already received huge subsidies after Pennsylvania de-regulated the retail electricity market in 1996.  

He claims a figure of $9 billion. I don't know if that figure is accurate or how it is calculated, but as someone who was paying close attention to that whole transition at the time, I saw the fallacy of lower electric bill claims for consumers as the PUC allowed investor-owned utilities to add a "stranded cost" to every bill for years. 

Notwithstanding my objections to subsidizing the nuclear industry in Pennsylvania as proposed, I wish nuclear power would prevail as a reliable source of energy.

It is a true marvel how splitting a uranium atom can release the "binding energy" holding it together that produces heat to make steam and steam is used to make electricity.  

It wasn't the 1979 incident at TMI that halted the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. — it was the double-digit inflation rates of the 1970s that killed the industry.  

TMI was just the last straw for public support of nuclear power.

I’m all for investing in new nuclear plant construction. 

That’s worth spending tax dollars on — not artificially propping up an aged plant only designed to be in use for forty years. 

Time’s up TMI.

— Joe Stafford is a former Navy trained nuclear reactor plant operator who served on the USS Enterprise from 1970-73.