In a symbolic blow to the U.S. nuclear sector, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant announced today that it is preparing to close in 2019. The announcement comes after the plant’s electric-power auction failed for the third year in a row. The plant is unable to pre-sell its electric production because of the high cost of the electricity, compounded by doubts about the future viability of the plant. Three Mile Island has been losing money for the last eight years and for most of its history, and not just because of its 1979 disaster.
The plant’s owner, Exelon, is asking for billions of dollars in state subsidies to keep the plant open. The state, though, is Pennsylvania, and in Pennsylvania, that kind of request is more of a talking point than a serious proposal. The state has chronic money problems, with a budget so tight you can’t ask for an extra $2 billion without saying what university or hospital you want to close to make up the difference. It is a state where the coal industry is on its last legs and could be killed off all at once with such a large subsidy for a competing power source. Many officials and voters remember when the state capital was unofficially evacuated for the partial meltdown the plant suffered in 1979, a nuclear accident that made it, for a few years, the most notorious power plant in the world. In lawmakers’ minds, throwing money at the nuclear plant just downstream might be funding a future disaster. Political costs aside, nuclear subsidies are bad policy too, as they hasten depletion of a starkly limited resource, uranium, while boosting the costs and risks associated with electric power generation.
Almost lost in the details of today’s announcement was the closure of another Exelon nuclear plant, the Quad Cities plant. That closure, though announced today, is probably four years away and is not so certain; there is a slight chance that a government subsidy could keep the Quad Cities plant going through one more fuel cycle.
Closings of aging nuclear plants have more symbolic than practical significance at this point. Three Mile Island, for example, was already set to close in 2034. if it closes 15 years early, well, that happens sometimes. The bigger problem facing the nuclear sector is the Westinghouse Electric Company bankruptcy two months ago. If the world’s leading nuclear power equipment company shuts down, it is hard to be sure that it will be possible to build or repair a nuclear plant in the future.