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TMI shuts down, 'not with a bang, but a whimper'; era comes to close in Londonderry Township

By Dan Miller

Posted 9/20/19

Larry and Sandra Robbins of Middletown were among those parked along River Road in Londonderry Township just before noon Friday to witness history.

Larry was hoping to see the last …

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TMI shuts down, 'not with a bang, but a whimper'; era comes to close in Londonderry Township


Larry and Sandra Robbins of Middletown were among those parked along River Road in Londonderry Township just before noon Friday to witness history.

Larry was hoping to see the last “omph,” the last gasp, of steam rising from the two cooling towers of Three Mile Island Unit 1 across the street.

Instead, it appeared it was just gradually fading away.

“There’s a line in a poem that says, ‘It’s going to go away not with a bang, but a whimper.’ There it is,” Larry said, staring out the window with his eyes fixed on the towers.

Others were along the other side of the road, snapping photos for posterity.

There were TMI employees current and former who had come to be here to see Unit 1 shut down for good, such as one woman who had worked on the island for 31 years before retiring, starting in 1975 before the March 1979 accident that shut down Unit 2 and forever changed the nuclear industry.

“I had to see this come to an end. It’s sad, I think, for a lot of people,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “But we had a lot of good years here. A lot of hard work.”

It all came to an end a few minutes after noon Friday, when according to Exelon spokesman David Marcheskie, “Unit 1 produced its final megawatt when operators safely and systematically disconnected our station from the regional power grid.”

Exelon spokesman David Marcheskie speaks about the closure of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on Friday, Sept. 20

The company’s decision to prematurely shut down Unit 1 came nearly 45 years to the day after Unit 1 began operations as a nuclear power reactor — Sept. 2, 1974.

That service was interrupted by the March 1979 accident that crippled Unit 2. Unit 1 had its license temporarily suspended as a result of the accident, but was allowed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume operations in 1985 — despite area residents in 1982 voting in favor of a non-binding resolution to keep Unit 1 closed permanently.

In recent years, lower demand for electricity, and lower power prices brought on by the boom in natural gas, have made nuclear power plants less economically competitive nationwide.

Yet of five nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania, only one is considered unprofitable — Three Mile Island, which Exelon in 2018 said had not made a profit in the last six years.

In May 2017, Exelon announced plans to shut down Unit 1 of TMI by Sept. 30, 2019 — despite the plant’s current license not expiring until 2034 — unless state government enacted a subsidy that would provide nuclear power with the same kind of economic support that the state already provides to other forms of renewable energy including wind and solar.

Within days of Exelon’s announcement, a group of local and regional politicians and labor and community leaders formed a coalition aimed at saving TMI by waging a public campaign to get lawmakers to act.

The group, called Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania Coalition, in numerous public rallies warned of the economic loss to the region of the 675 full-time jobs that would go away if TMI closed, and of the loss of property taxes to local governments and support to local charities.

They also warned of the environmental consequences of losing TMI, from the plant’s carbon-free emissions having to be made up by an increase in fossil fuel generation to make up the difference.

Legislation was introduced in the state House and Senate in March 2019 aimed at enacting a subsidy to “level the playing field” for the nuclear industry in Pennsylvania, as Exelon officials put it. But the legislation was never voted upon.

An official ceremony held in front of the TMI training center to mark the final shutdown Friday was similar to rallies that the coalition has been holding since Exelon first made its announcement in 2017.

Only this ceremony was marked by disappointment, frustration and anger over the failed outcome.

“The sad thing is that some of this could have been avoided,” said Anna Dale, chairwoman of the Londonderry Township Board of Supervisors. “As you have heard, the announcement was made two years ago. Just up the river our elected legislators knew of the impending closure but over the period of two years, not much was done. They could have done something to change the outcome.”

Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Lower Swatara Township, who had introduced House Bill 11 aimed at preserving TMI and the other nuclear plants in Pennsylvania, blasted what he called “special interests that have been against us through this whole fight and have put millions and millions of dollars into a PR campaign that says ‘no nuke bailout,’ that have done things to benefit themselves and not think about the people of Pennsylvania.”

“We, the Legislature, let you down. We, the Legislature, need to act, and I encourage everybody throughout this state to come together to find a way,” Mehaffie said. “If you don’t like HB 11, fine. But give me a way to find a solution to save the remainder of these plants … we haven’t seen anything happen yet because there was no closure, but today is reality and reality is painful.”

Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts, a coalition that has consistently opposed Mehaffie’s legislation, wasn’t among those at the ceremony in front of TMI, but issued a statement saying that responsibility for TMI’s closure and the loss of jobs and the economic impact rests with “the boardroom decision” made by Exelon “to begin the decades-long decommissioning process” at TMI “rather than investing the corporation’s billions of dollars in profits to support the plant, community and employees.”

“As Exelon officially powers down Unit 1 on TMI, we are reminded that for-profit nuclear energy corporations can make business decisions without government bailouts,” CANB said in its statement.

Marcheskie’s remarks at the ceremony on behalf of Exelon were brief, after which he exited without taking questions at the event for what he called “a private ceremony” on the island “with our employees to celebrate 45 years of service.”

Marcheskie said that of the 675 full-time employees who had been working at Unit 1 at the time of the 2019 announcement, all had received offers of employment to remain with Exelon.

“Every employee that wanted to remain with the company has secured another position within Exelon,” Marcheskie said. “Starting Oct. 1, employees who chose to stay within the company will venture to those positions.”

Of the Unit 1 employees, 112 who had received the offer from Exelon chose to voluntarily leave the company, according to Marcheskie.

The 675 figure had already dropped to 515 through what Marcheskie earlier told the Press & Journal was “natural attrition” over the past few months leading up to the Sept. 20 shutdown, including those who chose to retire or find other employment outside of Exelon.

The number of Unit 1 employees at TMI will be reduced further to 300, shortly after used fuel in the reactor is moved to the spent fuel pool — a milestone set for Sept. 30.

By 2021 employment will be down to 200, and down to about 50 by 2022, Exelon has said.

Larry and Sandra Robbins said they know a lot of friends who worked at TMI, had full careers and retired. They also know people not so fortunate, as a result of Exelon’s decision to shut the plant down.

“I have friends that have to leave the area right now because they won’t have a job and that is kind of sad,” she said. “Husbands and families that have to change their whole lifestyle for a job.”

But she and Larry both speak of TMI as a plant whose time has come.

“It’s not that I am opposed to nuclear energy,” Sandra said. “It’s just that we have more or less a waste here, with a unit we can’t use and a unit that has been losing money. It’s sad. It’s sad the way it ended.”

At the end of the Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania Coalition press conference marking the final shutdown of TMI, activist Gene Stilp, wearing a “No Nukes” T-shirt, held his own impromptu press conference calling on Exelon to speed up decommissioning of Unit 1.

Decommissioning will not be fully completed until 2078, under the current plan that Exelon has submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“One thing you don’t hear about is the nuclear waste that will be there forever,” Stilp said. “Starting the clean up now would be the best thing for employment and also for the safety of future generations. Exelon does not have a plan. They are putting it on future generations.”