Nu­clear power doesn’t pay off any­more


Three Mile Is­land, the nu­clear power plant lo­cated about 10 miles from Harrisburg, Pa., has stood as a sym­bol of nu­clear in­com­pe­tence for 38 years, or since the re­ac­tor in its Unit 2 par­tially melted down March 28, 1979.

Today it’s about to be­come a sym­bol of an­other fea­ture of Amer­ica’s nu­clear power in­dus­try: the im­pos­si­bil­ity of turn­ing a profit. The owner of the plant’s un­dam­aged Unit 1, the nuke-heavy en­ergy com­pany Ex­elon, an­nounced Tues­day that it will per­ma­nently shut down the unit in Septem­ber 2019. Ex­elon said a week ago that the plant hasn’t been prof­itable in five years. The com­pany will take a charge of as much as $110 mil­lion this year re­lated to the op­er­a­tion and planned shut­down.

It’s un­clear whether Ex­elon ac­tu­ally in­tends to close Three Mile Is­land, or if its an­nounce­ment is de­signed as some­thing of a threat to force the state of Penn­syl­va­nia to de­liver an op­er­at­ing sub­sidy. In an­nounc­ing the shut­down, Ex­elon groused that nu­clear power hasn’t re­ceived fa­vor­able treat­ment as a re­new­able en­ergy source in the state’s en­ergy pol­icy as have so­lar, wind and hy­dro power.

Ex­elon warned that “ab­sent pol­icy re­forms, the loss of Penn­syl­va­nia nu­clear plants would in­crease air pol­lu­tion, com­pro­mise the re­siliency of the elec­tric grid, raise en­ergy prices for con­sumers, elim­i­nate thou­sands of good-pay­ing lo­cal jobs and weaken the state’s econ­omy.” The an­nounce­ment leaned heav­ily on the eco­nomic im­pact of the shut­down, which Ex­elon says will mean lay­offs for as many as 675 work­ers di­rectly em­ployed at the site as well as the loss of “more than $1 mil­lion in state prop­erty taxes and more than $300,000 in lo­cal com­mu­nity giv­ing each year.” Three Mile Is­land is li­censed by the Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion to op­er­ate through 2034, so the shut­down would come 15 years early.

Still, the com­pany had to ac­knowl­edge that nu­clear power just isn’t com­pet­i­tive with other re­new­ables or with nat­u­ral gas gen­er­at­ing plants. Three Mile Is­land was un­able to sell its out­put into the re­gional elec­tric grid in re­cent power auc­tions.

“TMI re­mains eco­nom­i­cally chal­lenged as a re­sult of con­tin­ued low whole­sale power prices and the lack of

fed­eral or Penn­syl­va­nia en­ergy poli­cies that value zero-emis­sions nu­clear en­ergy,” Ex­elon says.

That un­der­scores a chronic malady of Amer­i­can nukes — they’re too hard to op­er­ate and sim­ply not com­pet­i­tive. It’s that mis­match of cost that helps ac­count for re­cent shut­down de­ci­sions such as the pend­ing clo­sure in Cal­i­for­nia of Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric’s Di­ablo Canyon nu­clear plant and the 2013 aban­don­ment of San Onofre by South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son af­ter a botched up­grade.

Nor does the eco­nomic tide seem about to turn. Just last week, an ex­ec­u­tive at Sem­pra En­ergy, the par­ent of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Gas and San Diego Gas & Elec­tric Co., and a mi­nor­ity owner of San Onofre, told a util­ity con­fer­ence that the tech­nol­ogy ex­ists today for Cal­i­for­nia to get all of its power from so­lar and wind, rather than keep­ing fos­sil-fu­eled gen­er­a­tion around to pro­vide con­stant base-load elec­tric­ity. “In­stalling a base-load power plant is no longer your only op­tion,” said Pa­trick Lee, a Sem­pra vice pres­i­dent. “You can now look at so­lar, wind and stor­age as al­ter­na­tives, and still be able to man­age the re­li­a­bil­ity of the grid.”

Three Mile Is­land will al­ways be fa­mous not as an ex­am­ple of nu­clear en­ergy’s eco­nomic ob­so­les­cence, but of the nu­clear in­dus­try’s slip­shod man­age­ment prac­tices. Start­ing at 4 a.m. that day in March 1979, mul­ti­ple fail­ures oc­curred to pro­duce what still stands as the na­tion’s worst com­mer­cial nu­clear ac­ci­dent.

The mishap be­gan with a pump fail­ure that blocked cool­ing water from reach­ing the re­ac­tor core. The re­ac­tor im­me­di­ately shut down. A valve opened to re­lieve pres­sure build­ing up con­di­tions in the nu­clear unit, but then stuck open in­stead of clos­ing, al­low­ing cool­ing water to cas­cade out of the re­ac­tor unit. Plant staff got an er­ro­neous read­ing in­di­cat­ing the valve had closed, and other in­for­ma­tion sys­tems pro­vided them with more in­cor­rect or in­ad­e­quate data.

“As alarms rang and warn­ing lights flashed,” the NRC re­counted, “the op­er­a­tors did not re­al­ize that the plant was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a loss-of-coolant ac­ci­dent. They took a se­ries of ac­tions that made con­di­tions worse.”

In the end, the nu­clear fuel over­heated; about half the core melted down. The NRC cor­rectly de­scribes a loss-of-coolant in­ci­dent as “the most dan­ger­ous kind of nu­clear power ac­ci­dent,” but as­serts that ef­fects out­side the plant it­self, in­clud­ing ra­di­a­tion re­leases and health ef­fects in the sur­round­ing area, were min­i­mal.

That said, the af­fected Three Mile Is­land Unit 2 was per­ma­nently dis­abled. Its fuel and ra­dioac­tive waste have been shipped away, and what’s left of the unit is mon­i­tored by Ex­elon.

Matt Rourke Associated Press

EX­ELON, owner of the un­dam­aged unit at the Three Mile Is­land nu­clear plant in Penn­syl­va­nia, an­nounced that it will close the unit in 2019. Ex­elon said it hasn’t made money in years. Above, cool­ing tow­ers at the plant.

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