Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Axios on your phone

Get breaking news and scoops on the go with the Axios app.

Download for free.

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios NW Arkansas

Stay up-to-date on the most important and interesting stories affecting NW Arkansas, authored by local reporters

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

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.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Group of 20 bipartisan senators back $1.2T infrastructure framework

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) arrives for a meeting with Senate Budget Committee Democrats in the Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol building on June 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Majority Leader and Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee are meeting to discuss how to move forward with the Biden Administrations budget proposal. Photo: Samuel Corum / Getty Images

A group of 10 Democratic and 10 Republican senators (the "G20") tasked with negotiating an infrastructure deal with the White House has released a statement in support of a $1.2 trillion framework.

Why it matters: Details regarding the plan have not yet been released, but getting 10 Republicans on board means the bill could get the necessary 60 votes to pass.

DOJ drops criminal probe, civil lawsuit against John Bolton over Trump book

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Justice Department has closed its criminal investigation into whether President Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton disclosed classified information with his tell-all memoir, “The Room Where it Happened," according to a source with direct knowledge.

Why it matters: The move comes a year after the Trump administration tried to silence Bolton by suing him in federal court, claiming he breached his contract by failing to complete a pre-publication review for classified information. Prosecutors indicated they had reached a settlement with Bolton to drop the lawsuit in a filing on Wednesday.

Fed may raise rates sooner, as inflation is higher than expected

Feb chair Jerome Powell. Photo: Susan Walsh/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve kept rates unchanged at its latest policy meeting, but a shift in sentiment emerged as to how soon it should begin raising rates.

Why it matters: The Fed's rock-bottom rates policy and monthly asset purchases helped the U.S. markets avoid a meltdown during the COVID-19 crisis last year. But as the economy recovers, a chorus is growing for the Fed to at least consider a timeline for pulling back its support before things get overheated.

You’ve caught up. Now what?

Sign up for Mike Allen’s daily Axios AM and PM newsletters to get smarter, faster on the news that matters.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!