Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Gas May Be Killing the Nuclear Option

The infamous Three Mile Island power plant’s planned closing may be a sign of the industry’s demise.

In 1979, Three Mile Island managed to survive the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history. Almost four decades later, the Pennsylvania power plant can’t seem to withstand cheap natural gas. And the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents commercial nuclear operators in the U.S., is warning that lots of other U.S. reactors are equally imperiled.

“There are 10 to 15 plants still at risk of premature closure,” in addition to Three Mile Island and several others whose owners have recently announced tentative closure plans, institute spokesman John Keeley said in an interview on May 30.

Nuclear plants generate about two-thirds of America’s carbon-free electricity, my colleague Paul Barrett reported in December. The NEI argues that government should do more to help these plants because they produce electricity without byproducts such as greenhouse gases or other air pollutants. Keeley points to New York and Illinois as two states that have begun to help plant operators keep their heads above water by issuing them zero emission credits.

“Policymakers there do not want to lose them [the plants] because of their environmental and economic advantages,” says Keeley. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, and New Jersey are “beginning to talk” about doing something similar, he says.

Opponents of nuclear power, meanwhile, say the zero emission credits amount to corporate welfare.  

“Nuclear power has failed dismally in the marketplace, and that’s what will doom Three Mile Island,” Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, group, told Barrett.

As reported by Bloomberg, Exelon Corp., which owns Three Mile Island, submitted a filing on May 30 that it would shut the plant down in 2019 in the absence of state aid. Pennsylvania “has an opportunity to take a leadership role by implementing a policy solution to preserve its nuclear energy facilities,” Exelon Chief Executive Christopher Crane said in a statement.

Shahriar Pourreza, a New York-based analyst for Guggenheim Securities, told Bloomberg that Exelon’s announcement smacks of “posturing.” But the NEI’s Keeley says this was no trial balloon. “They have to give advance notice” because it takes grid operators time to plan for the withdrawal of generating capacity, he says. “When they surrender that license, it’s final. The gate gets locked. You can’t just turn a key and restart a nuclear reactor.”

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