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‘End of an era:’ After 45 years, Three Mile Island nuclear power plant is closed

Three Mile Island’s closure will increase the state’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Unit 1 produces more zero-carbon electricity than all the state’s wind, solar and hydro plants combined, and it will be replaced by power produced from natural gas.

Passersby stop to photograph the cooling towers of Three Mile Island Unit 1 in Middletown, Pa., Friday, the reactor's last day of operation.
Passersby stop to photograph the cooling towers of Three Mile Island Unit 1 in Middletown, Pa., Friday, the reactor's last day of operation.Read moreKalim A. Bhatti

Exelon Generation on Friday pulled the plug on Three Mile Island Unit 1, which generated prodigious amounts of electricity for 45 years, but failed in the end to generate enough political support for its financial needs or its contribution as a carbon-free power source.

The 837-megawatt reactor, the elder sibling of the infamous one that was closed in 1979 after a partial meltdown that set back the nuclear power industry, was disconnected from the regional power grid at noon. The plant needed about 10 hours to cool down sufficiently for the signature vapor plumes from its two cooling towers to disappear, a spokesperson said.

“Today marks the end of an era in Central Pennsylvania,” said Mike Pries, a Dauphin County commissioner, who was among the speakers who gathered outside the power station, at the plant’s training center, to lament the closure. “It’s a difficult day for the community, for the county, and for all of Central Pennsylvania.”

The power station’s workforce marked the occasion with a private ceremony inside the plant, know simply as “the Island" to insiders, said Dave Marcheskie, an Exelon spokesman.

On a day when young people across the world were staging protests to urge policy makers to take action on climate change, few noted that Three Mile Island’s closure will increase Pennsylvania’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Unit 1 produces more zero-carbon electricity than all the state’s wind, solar and hydro plants combined, and it will likely be replaced by power produced from burning natural gas.

The state’s nine commercial nuclear reactors at five sites produce 93% of the state’s zero-carbon electricity.

The regional power grid is sufficiently large and diverse that Three Mile Island’s closure will not affect reliability, according to the grid operator, PJM.

The company announced two years ago it planned to shut down Unit 1 unless the state came to the financial aid of Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants. Exelon said Three Mile Island lost hundreds of millions of dollars in competitive electricity markets dominated by low-cost natural gas.

When lawmakers were unable to generate support for a $500 million nuclear rescue package this year, which would have cost each state household about $1.77 a month in higher electric rates, Exelon announced in May that it would shut down the plant.

“This is a devastating loss,” said Bart Shellenhamer, the fire chief and supervisor in Londonderry Township, where Three Mile Island is by far the biggest taxpayer.

“Our taxes are going to have to be reconsidered, because we’re still going to need funding for roads, schools and such,” he said. Many of the town’s 5,200 residents are senior citizens who cannot afford large tax increases, he said.

“It’s just sad all the way around,” said Daulph A. Kline, business manager of Electricians Local 777 in Middletown, which represents about 300 Unit 1 employees. “A lot of good-paying jobs in this area are gone.”

The focus for nuclear power supporters will now shift to Western Pennsylvania, where FirstEnergy Corp. plans to retire its two Beaver Valley reactors near Shippingport in 2021. Supporters rallied Friday at the Beaver County Courthouse to pressure legislators to revive nuclear funding that would keep the plants open.

Rep. Thomas Mehaffie (R., Dauphin), a sponsor of the nuclear rescue package, said that discussions were in the early stage about what form a new effort might take, but said lawmakers will need to make a decision by next summer or Beaver Valley will face the same fate as Three Mile Island.

“This hit us like a ton of bricks,” Mehaffie said Friday. "We’ve got Beaver Valley right in front of us. We’ve got to do something. With this closing, I hope it has changed the dynamics around it in the legislature.”

Exelon acquired Unit 1 in 1999, two decades after the nuclear accident that destroyed its twin. That reactor, owned by FirstEnergy, is dormant and is awaiting full decommissioning after the shutdown of Exelon’s plant.

Exelon said that the reactor plant, which employs nearly 700 people, would reduce the staffing level to 300 after shutdown. The Unit 1 decommissioning and shutdown will take $1.2 billion and 60 years to complete, unless Exelon opts for an accelerated plan.

Exelon’s decommissioning schedule, which was spelled out in a plan released in April, calls for the immediate removal of Unit 1′s nuclear fuel after shutdown. The uranium fuel-rod assemblies would cool in spent fuel pools for three years, until they are moved to above-ground sealed canisters in 2022

A skeleton workforce of 50 would remain in place after 2022 to secure the site and the 1,200 tons of spent fuel stored in the casks.

Exelon had argued that the jobs at Three Mile Island and its clean-air attributes were valuable public benefits that merited a financial rescue, paid by electric customers. But a coalition of consumer advocates, including AARP and industrial customers, and the natural gas industry argued that the bailout would unsettle the competitive electricity marketplace Pennsylvania embraced 20 years ago, which has resulted in a steady decline in power prices.

Clean-air advocates and environmentalists, uncomfortable with nuclear industry’s stigma and unresolved waste-disposal issues, did not rally to support the state’s biggest carbon-free power source.

"Now with the closure, we are going to be forced to be using more fossil fuels, which is going to have a detrimental impact on the quality of our air,” said Anna Dale, a Londonderry Township supervisor.

Anti-nuclear activist Gene Stilp, wearing a No-Nukes T-shirt and an Amish straw hat, stood on the sidelines of Friday’s closing news conference, but commandeered center stage at the end to commend the end of “40 years of lies and corruption” related to the plant. He said Exelon could maintain employment by directing its workforce to clean up the site.

“I hear a lot of crocodile tears over here, but union members could be working right now cleaning this up,” he said.