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TMI’s complicated, ongoing legacy: Editorial

Posted 4/3/19

Those who lived in this area through the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979, when a partial meltdown of Unit 2 occurred, might find it hard to believe how the landscape has …

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TMI’s complicated, ongoing legacy: Editorial

Posted

Those who lived in this area through the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979, when a partial meltdown of Unit 2 occurred, might find it hard to believe how the landscape has changed 40 years later.

A Press & Journal poll taken in the days after the accident found that 189 respondents opposed restarting TMI, with 97 in favor. Granted, this was not a scientific poll, but those numbers seem accurate if not conservative in regard to the feeling of area residents at the time.

But 40 years can change many things. We haven’t suffered through any safety scares at TMI even close to the scale of the 1979 event. Nuclear power in the United States has a relatively clean record. Despite the arguments of an ardent few, there is little evidence that radiation from the accident has caused any long-term health effects.

If you are in your early 40s or younger, you don’t remember how it felt to have to leave your home for safety reasons, and being told it might be a long time before you could return. The accident is something your parents or grandparents talked about, not a tangible threat.

So our community’s relationship with TMI? Call it complicated.

That hulking monstrosity that sits on a Susquehanna River island on the western edge of Londonderry Township, puffing out majestic puffs of steam … what will be its status in six months?

Is it a pillar of our employment base, with 675 full-time employees and 1,500 temporary workers who descend on the area every two years during refueling, boosting our economy in the process?

Or is it an accident waiting to happen, either quickly with some type of malfunction that would spread radiation, or more slowly because of all the stored nuclear waste there?

Complicated.

Its announced closure certainly made this anniversary of the accident feel different. Now, arguments over TMI are less about safety and more about dollar bills.

Exelon Corp., which owns TMI, says the plant has not made a profit in six years. The numbers don’t look good to keep it open, and that accident 40 years ago is a big reason why. If the plant had two fully functional generators, it might make more sense to keep open.

TMI has one unit. Other Exelon plants in Pennsylvania (Limerick and Peach Bottom) have two.

The numbers, as we have reported them: Peach Bottom has 860 employees with a payroll of $84.2 million, and it generates 2,700 megawatts of power. Three Mile Island has about 675 employees with an annual payroll of about $60 million and generates about 850 megawatts of power.

As we have stated in previous editorials, policy reforms won’t make Three Mile Island run more efficiently.

But our elected officials are going to take a stab at boosting the nuclear industry.

Legislation introduced by state Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Lower Swatara Township, argues that we must pay higher prices now to maintain nuclear power, or we all will pay higher rates down the road if nuclear stops being part of the portfolio.

Under his plan, a credit for nuclear power would come when utilities bill customers for the cost of buying nuclear power at a similar premium as the other energy producers in the portfolio. Utilities could pass the cost of that premium on to its customers.

Mehaffie has estimated his legislation would cost on average $500 million a year and increase electric bills for Pennsylvania consumers by $1.77 per month. However, he says the typical residential electric bill will go up more —  by $2.39 a month — if TMI and the other nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania are allowed to close.

That will be a tough pill for many Pennsylvanians to swallow. Not only the residents, but for the elected officials those Pennsylvanians send to Harrisburg.

An overwhelming majority of the state does not have residents working in the nuclear industry. The only way to convince residents in those areas — and, more importantly, the legislators who represent them — that nuclear energy is worth supporting is to hit them in the wallets and pocketbooks. Pay a little now, to help with nuclear energy, or pay a lot more later, in the way of much higher energy bills.

That’s going to be a tough sell in our view. It’s not that Pennsylvanians are short-sighted, necessarily, but many would rather roll the dice and hope that other changes to our energy supply would even out the loss if nuclear diminishes.

We don’t want TMI to close and see hundreds of people out of work. But it’s a simple question: How much should the government do to try to prevent it from happening?

You see, it’s complicated. Even former Mayor Robert Reid, once an ardent critic of how the plant was run, supports keeping it open.

If it closes, there will be tax implications for Londonderry Township and Lower Dauphin School District, charity repercussions (the plant and its employees also contribute about $300,000 a year to charities throughout the region) and unemployment challenges.

In a front-page editorial on April 4, 1979, the first edition of the Press & Journal following the accident, we started by saying: “The Middletown area has suffered many blows in our long history. We’ve been hit with fires and floods, phaseouts and run-ins and through it all, we’ve recovered. And more often than not we’ve fared better in the end.”

We are resilient. If the plant closes, we will survive it and find a way.

Regardless of what happens this year, TMI’s license to run as a nuclear facility expires on April 19, 2034. While that sounds like an incredibly long time from now, it’s only 15 years. It almost certainly will close then based on what Exelon is arguing now, and we will face many of the same issues.

We support TMI, its contributions to the tax base, its charitable giving and the hard work of its employees. But all is not lost if it closes, just as all was not lost when Olmsted Air Force Base ceased operations.

What’s the answer? Just like much of TMI’s existence, it’s complicated. We wait with great interest to see what becomes of Mehaffie’s bill, but everyone should be prepared for what likely will happen if it’s not approved — a life without TMI.