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A sobering but predictable result for TMI’s long saga: Editorial

Posted 5/15/19

We have written several editorials since Exelon announced in May 2017 that it planned to prematurely close its nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island.

If you have read all of them, you know we …

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A sobering but predictable result for TMI’s long saga: Editorial


We have written several editorials since Exelon announced in May 2017 that it planned to prematurely close its nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island.

If you have read all of them, you know we are not surprised that the shutdown now seems imminent. Exelon announced May 8 that the plant will close, which seems to be the final straw. The Pennsylvania Legislature, despite bills being introduced in both the House and Senate, did not take action.

Exelon and other nuclear operators in Pennsylvania want nuclear energy added to the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, to be on level footing with solar and wind.

Nuclear probably should be added, in all fairness. As TMI spokesman Dave Marcheskie says, the nuclear power industry generates 93 percent of carbon-free electricity in Pennsylvania.

But TMI’s problem, as we have stated before, is unique. The specter of the partial meltdown that is now 40 years in the past continues to slap TMI in the face, because there is only one active reactor on the island.

Almost two years ago, in our editorial of June 7, 2017, we said: “You do the math: 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. There aren’t enough bills in the pens of the entire Legislature to close that gap.”

There still aren’t.

The legislative efforts had little chance of passing.

As Eric Epstein of the watchdog group TMI Alert told us, “Anyone who drops legislation in March and expects it to be passed by May should book a ticket on Fantasy Airlines. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Exelon has played the game well. It made the issue about legislation, not about the industry or the challenges facing TMI. It put the onus on the Legislature, and   the Legislature didn’t even move a bill out of committee.

Now, however, the Legislature seems determined to pass something, to protect the other nuclear plants in the state. State Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Lower Swatara Township, said soon after Exelon’s May 8 announcement: “I hope the conversation continues in the Legislature about the future of Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry. We still have eight reactors in this state supplying a large piece of our state’s electricity production. Time may have run out for Three Mile Island, but the fight is not over for the rest of our nuclear fleet.”

Opponents of any “bailout” for nuclear will tell you that Exelon and the other companies that own nuclear plants in the state don’t need help, that TMI was the only plant not making a profit.

We have said from the start that it was our belief that Exelon was willing to sacrifice TMI by closing it in order to protect its other interests in Pennsylvania. Passing legislation put forth by Mehaffie, even if it’s too late to save TMI, would do just that.

“Pennsylvania lawmakers should continue to reject this attempt at a corporate cash grab being led by three out-of-state corporations projected to make more than $1 billion in profits in Pennsylvania in 2018 and 2019,” Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts said in a statement after the closure announcement, referring to Exelon, FirstEnergy Solutions and Talen Energy.

From a local standpoint, we are curious to see the impacts. They probably won’t be sudden.

We are glad that Londonderry Township has been taking steps to insulate itself from the potential loss of more than $110,000 in annual revenue from Three Mile Island. The Lower Dauphin School District also likely will have some tough choices ahead.

But one specific area won’t be devastated by a huge amount of its residents losing their jobs. Figures provided by TMI in 2017 show that 78 of the approximately 675 TMI employees live in the 17057 ZIP code that encompasses Middletown, Royalton, Londonderry Township and Lower Swatara Township. More live in Lancaster County (202) than Dauphin (193). York County has 76, Cumberland County has 50, and Lebanon County, 43.

We were heartened to hear that Harrisburg Regional Chamber President David Black thinks Middletown is in a good spot to weather whatever storm might come from the closure.

The area lost thousands of jobs in the 1960s when Olmsted Air Force Base closed, but now the base is home to Penn State Harrisburg and Harrisburg International Airport, both key drivers of the area economy.

Such a repurposing will be difficult on the island, we realize. But one possibility we haven’t heard discussed is making it a tourist attraction. Sound weird? If the island is proven to be safe for visitors, and both TMI officials and federal authorities say it is except for where the accident happened, we bet there are plenty of people who would want to go inside. Tourists travel to battlefields such as Gettysburg on vacation. Would it be so hard to believe that TMI couldn’t be a destination as well?

That’s a discussion for another time. For now, we salute everything that has been done by the hard-working employees of the plant over the decades since it first opened. Three Mile Island is part of American history, and it always will be because of what happened there 40 years ago.

But its closure doesn’t have to devastate the area. We will get through this.