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As climate change worsens, America faces nuclear closures

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 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 during a visit for "Axios on HBO," this power plant represents everything good and bad about America’s nuclear power. With climate change worsening, calls are growing to keep plants like this one open despite financial strains because they emit no heat-trapping gases. Yet fear persists 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 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 five years. It announced earlier this year it was planning to close the plant in September 2019 unless there was government action, likely through the Pennsylvania legislature, to financially help it remain open.

By the numbers:

  • One-third of America’s nuclear power could be taken offline in the next few years, and as much as two-thirds could be unprofitable in the coming years, according to MIT research.
  • Four reactors have prematurely closed since 2012, and more than a dozen are expected to close in the next six years, according to a report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an environmental think tank.
  • More than 10 reactors at risk of closing are being kept open after four states — New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut — approved policies in recent years to subsidize the plants, according to experts at the centrist think tank Third Way.

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.

Exelon says it would cost less to keep nuclear plants open and that they'd help the climate in a way that natural gas — the power that would likely replace them — wouldn’t. (Gas produces CO2 emissions.)

At Three Mile Island, many of the 675 employees aren’t sure of their next steps if the plant closes. Mara Levy, 27, a reactor engineer here, and her fiance both work in the industry.

“It is concerning to see nuclear on this shrinking trend because we both have nuclear engineering degrees, we both have spent our entire careers within the industry. So staying in the industry may get harder if these plants start to shut down."
— Mary Levy, reactor engineer

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.

  • Radioactive waste is stored onsite at the nearly 100 reactors around the country, stoking fears and opposition.
  • But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency, says public health has never been affected by the storage or transportation of waste.
  • That includes when the remains of Three Mile Island’s half-melted core were moved from Pennsylvania to storage at the Idaho National Laboratory in the late 1980s.

Whitehouse says reusing spent fuel, something France does successfully, would help resolve people’s concerns. That technology is not as far along in the U.S. as other advanced nuclear technologies, which are designed smaller and produce less waste.

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 more than a year, the Trump administration has been considering policy measures to keep economically struggling nuclear reactors open, as well as coal plants that face similar problems. It's unclear what, if anything, will come of this.

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.

Sascha Gardner, producer on the “Axios on HBO” show, contributed to this reporting.

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