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Farewell to Three Mile Island ... now what comes next?: Editorial

Posted 10/2/19

The end came a bit earlier than expected, with little fanfare.

At about noon Sept. 20, Three Mile Island Unit 1 stopped producing nuclear energy.

“Unit 1 produced its final megawatt when …

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Farewell to Three Mile Island ... now what comes next?: Editorial


The end came a bit earlier than expected, with little fanfare.

At about noon Sept. 20, Three Mile Island Unit 1 stopped producing nuclear energy.

“Unit 1 produced its final megawatt when operators safely and systematically disconnected our station from the regional power grid,” said Exelon spokesman David Marcheskie.

The end.

But, of course, it is also the beginning — of what happens next.

Let’s look a little bit at the legacy of Three Mile Island before we talk about its future. Nationally, it is known for the 1979 meltdown, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.

For better or for worse, it put Middletown on the lips of people around the globe 40 years ago (and yes, we know the island is in Londonderry Township, not the borough).

But locally, we know it for much, much more than that.

It employed thousands upon thousands of people over the decades. Its employees used their wages to buy homes and cars. Those wages paid for employees’ children to go college. They funded retirements and paid taxes. The employees were part of a work family out on the island.

Now, that is gone. Those 675 jobs that existed a year or so ago have been slashed more than in half. By 2021, employment will be 200, and about 50 by 2022, Exelon has said.

So what does happen next?

Those 675 jobs were spread around multiple counties (at its peak, there were more TMI employees in Lancaster County than in Dauphin). Figures provided by TMI in 2017 showed that only 78 of the then-675 TMI employees lived in the 17057 ZIP code that encompasses Middletown, Royalton, Londonderry Township and Lower Swatara Township.

So while there is an impact job-wise, it really isn’t that deep in our area.

The times when local restaurants were full of TMI employees for breakfast or lunch have long since gone. TMI had its only restaurant facilities on the island. So that impact has already been absorbed.

Taxes and how much TMI employees gave back to the community, however, might be a bit more problematic.

Londonderry Township has been financially preparing for the closure of Three Mile Island since Exelon Generation announced it would prematurely retire TMI in 2017, which is a great step taken by officials there.

The parks program was reduced. Full-time staff members picked up other duties. When full-time positions opened due to attrition, the township didn’t fill them and chose to instead use part-time employees. Those moves have an effect, but they are reasonable steps to take.

Lower Dauphin School District receives close to $700,000 in property taxes annually from Exelon Generation’s properties in the district. Property taxes might go up, or services might be cut.

More than that, TMI employees spent more than 2,000 hours volunteering in the community and donated more than $300,000 to local charities and causes every year, according to the company.

The annual Three Mile Island Charity Golf Tournament raised more than $750,000 for the Londonderry Township Volunteer Fire Company over the last 14 years.

It all adds up. Time will tell how much the community as a whole will feel the impact.

And, of course, will your energy bills see a huge spike?

So now all the posturing is over with. The Pennsylvania Legislature failed to come close to taking action. “We, the Legislature, let you down,” state Rep. Tom Mehaffie said Sept. 20 as the nuclear generation came to an end.

That is debatable.

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. We have said that nuclear probably should be added, in all fairness. But that still wouldn’t change the numbers we have stated before in editorials: The nuclear plant at Peach Bottom has 860 employees with a payroll of $84.2 million, and it generates 2,700 megawatts of power. Three Mile Island had about 675 employees at its peak with an annual payroll of about $60 million and generated about 850 megawatts of power.

Business is business, and numbers are numbers.

There is this little business of the spent fuel pool to deal with, of course. All the spent fuel since the nuclear plant opened is still on the island. There is no place to take it, because the United States does not have a central depository, as was once proposed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Spent fuel would be moved to dry cask storage by about 2022. But actual decommissioning operations at Unit 1 would be delayed until 2075, under the plan Exelon has submitted to the NRC.

Watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert wants decommissioning of Unit 1 to start now, “to employ more people, protect the tax base and preserve the institutional knowledge we have here,” according to Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert.

The fights continue.

Even if you were always wary of what you considered the potential dangers of having a nuclear plant in your “backyard,” it did make our area unique. If you were around in 1979, after all, you lived through history. While some believe the accident still affects the health of those around here, the overwhelming evidence shows that not to be the case.

The towers stand inactive. The steam no longer billows forth.

The legacy, however, will continue. TMI will always be a part of our history, even at some time in the distant or not-so-distant future when those cooling towers are torn down and the island is returned to some natural state or used for some other purpose.

It’s legacy continues to be complicated.

Let’s see where it stands in five years. Until then, we bid a fond farewell to Three Mile Island. For all the controversy, it certainly benefitted this area much more than it did harm.