Three Mile Island, Pa. — Next year will mark 40 years since America’s worst nuclear-energy accident unfolded here in a partial radioactive meltdown. The Pennsylvania reactor still operating next to the defunct one is set to close next year, 15 years sooner than planned.
Why it matters: As we found in a visit for "Axios on HBO," this power plant represents everything good and bad about America’s nuclear power.
- As climate change worsens, calls are growing to keep plants like this one open despite the financial strains because they emit no heat-trapping gases.
- Yet fears persist about safety and what to do with the radioactive waste.
“I think that the climate change problem is now so dire and so immediate that we can't afford to turn away from any technologies that promise to reduce our dependence on fuels that emit carbon dioxide when burned. And nuclear is a part of that portfolio.” — Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), in an interview for "Axios on HBO"
The big picture: Cheap natural gas and increasingly cheap renewables buoyed by government support are financially squeezing this plant and others, which aren’t compensated for their carbon-free profile like wind and solar.
- Nuclear power provides 20% of America’s electricity, more than half of the carbon-free kind. In Pennsylvania, that share is nearly 94%.
Driving the news: Exelon, owner of Three Mile Island, has been losing money for 5 years on this plant. It announced earlier this year it was planning to close the plant in September 2019 unless there's government action, likely through the Pennsylvania legislature, to financially help it remain open.
Context is key. Wind and solar are growing rapidly, but the scale is still far smaller than nuclear power.
- Replacing the carbon-free electricity produced by a single reactor would require more than 800 average-sized wind turbines at a cost of $1.3 billion — or 15.8 million solar panels at a cost of nearly $6.6 billion, according to an analysis done by Third Way for this story.
Critics say taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay to keep the nuclear power industry afloat. Exelon officials counter that electricity prices would rise regardless of whether plants shut down or remain open with government support — it’s just a matter of how much.
Outside of the industry, support is waning as worries persist about safety. In 2016, support for nuclear power fell below 50%, and as of March, it was still there.
What’s next: The industry isn’t trying to build new big plants, given the prohibitively high costs. The final price tags of the only new U.S. reactors under construction today could exceed $30 billion.
- For now, Exelon, its employees here and local support groups are going to be urging state lawmakers to keep it open. The window to reverse course closes this summer.
Go deeper: Read the full column in the Axios stream.