Exelon explores options for Three Mile Island’s future

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LONDONDERRY TOWNSHIP, DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. -- The owners of the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in southern York County hope it will continue to generate electricity for another 40 years.

Exelon also operates the Three Mile Island facility in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County.

Cheap natural gas and renewable energy types such as solar or wind is fueling competition in energy industry.

With TMI's one working reactor, it can be difficult for TMI's nuclear powered plant to beat the lower prices of other resources. Some question the plant's future.

The community group TMI Alert is a safe energy group founded in 1977, which monitors activity surrounding Peach Bottom and TMI plants, and the Susquehanna River.

TMI Alert chairman Eric Epstein said "it's pretty clear that nuclear power plants throughout the country are closing, whether its Fitzpatrick in New York, Byron in Illinois, San Onofre in California, the writing's on the wall the market has spoken."

Three Mile Island's owner lost out on a bid to sell electricity on the PJM power grid due to competition from cheaper fuel sources such as natural gas.

Three Mile Island Communications Manager Ralph DeSantis said "TMI is kind of challenged by having only one reactor here, where as a plant like Peach Bottom has two large reactors, that generate about two-thirds more electricity than TMI."

Three Mile Island is set to generate power for the PJM grid for only two more years, while the company hopes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will extend the lifetime of its Peach Bottom plant.

"If granted, we'll have that plant to run for 80 years. It's a very significant announcement, and very good for the environment, and for jobs, and for the reliability on the power grid," DeSantis said.

With Exelon's contract for Three Mile Island to output energy for the PJM grid running out, Epstein said it may be time to explore other options.

"The other reality is, it's not making money. When it doesn't make money, and the market says we have to go to another source of energy, than we have to take a serious look at that," Epstein said.

"One option would be the premature retirement of Three Mile Island if the prices don't recover, and environmental policies don't recognize the benefit of Three Mile Island," DeSantis said.

"Nobody wants to see displaced workers, nobody wants to see the tax base go away, that's in everybody's interest," Epstein said.

More than 700 people work at the plant full-time, not to mention hundreds of seasonal staff.

"The plant also has a huge economic impact in Dauphin and Lancaster County, so it would be a big impact if Three Mile Island would shut down prematurely," DeSantis said.

It's not time to power down Three Mile Island just yet.

"There are no plans to close Three Mile Island right now , and we're exploring all options to maintain the operations of the plant," DeSantis said.

Both Epstein and DeSantis believe all types of energy types should be considered in Pennsylvania, as to "not put all our eggs in one basket."

"We have to plan for the future. However, we have to have a diverse portfolio, that includes alternatives, renewables, it will include coal and nuclear, as a bridge fuel for some time," Epstein said.

DeSantis hopes another option for TMI's future is that environmental policies on renewable energy would include nuclear.

"Looking at federal and state policies that would recognize the fact that this plant doesn't produce any carbon, and that's a very valuable thing to our environment," DeSantis said.

Exelon's recently announced it will ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend its operating licenses for the Peach Bottom facility another 20 years from 2033 and 2044, to 2053 and 2054.

The NRC grants licenses for an initial 40-year term. Once the term is up, nuclear power plant operators may ask for extensions for up to 20 years.