Pressure Mounts as Legislators Try to Save Nuclear Plants

Time is winding down for lawmakers interested in enacting legislation to save the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant. That message was amplified on April 5 when Exelon Corp. filed the federally required Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR) with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The PSDAR details plans for TMI Unit 1 after its final shutdown, which is scheduled in September 2019.

In the report, Exelon Generation selected “SAFSTOR,” one of three federally approved decommissioning options, and outlined a plan to dismantle large components, including the station’s cooling towers, beginning in 2074. However, the delay in dismantling the facility does not mean it could be easily restarted after retirement. No plant has ever returned to service once placed in SAFSTOR.

In a press release, Exelon said, “The SAFSTOR option provides a safer environment for our decommissioning workforce by allowing additional time for normal radioactive decay, which results in less waste and lower radiation exposure.”

The company said used nuclear fuel would be transitioned into TMI’s spent fuel pool and then moved to dry cask storage by the end of 2022. Facility staffing is expected to be reduced in three phases from 675 employees in 2017 when Exelon announced the plant’s retirement to 50 fulltime employees in 2022.

TMI is just one of several nuclear plants struggling to compete in the current market environment in which relatively low-cost natural gas and growing renewable generation are keeping power prices down. FirstEnergy Solutions told PJM Interconnection in March 2018 that it would close the 908-MW Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio, by 2020; the twin-unit 1,872-MW Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 2021; and the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Perry, Ohio, in 2021.

However, state legislators in Pennsylvania have been working to update a 2004 state law—the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards—to include nuclear power. The law currently requires that 18% of electricity sold should come from renewable sources by 2021, including at least 0.5% of solar photovoltaic power. Adding nuclear power to the standard could keep the TMI and Beaver Valley units viable.

Some Ohio lawmakers are also scrambling to get legislation on the books to support that state’s nuclear plants. Ohio energy consultant Matt Brakey was quoted by the Dayton Daily News as saying, “Legislation will pass that includes some financial support for these nuclear units designed to keep them open beyond their current planned retirements.” The Daily News report says the bailout would cost $300 million, and Blakey said the most likely scenario would have all Ohioans paying the bill, not just those living in FirstEnergy Ohio’s footprint.

Nuclear subsidies lobbied for by Exelon have saved plants in Illinois and New York already. New Jersey and Connecticut have also passed legislation to help nuclear plants stave off closure. Exelon has said TMI will remain operating if a policy solution is enacted.

“Even while we continue to safely operate Three Mile Island at industry-leading levels, we have a responsibility to prepare the plant, along with our community and our employees, for decommissioning,” said TMI Unit 1 Site Vice President Edward Callan in a press release. “At the same time, we are actively engaged with stakeholders and policymakers on a solution to preserve Pennsylvania’s nuclear facilities and the clean, reliable energy and good-paying jobs they provide—a solution that will maintain nuclear energy’s $2 billion annual contribution to the state’s economy and its approximately 16,000 direct and indirect Pennsylvania jobs. However, time is not on our side.”

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).