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July 08, 2024

Pa. is considering restarting a reactor at Three Mile Island, the site of a nuclear disaster in 1979

Constellation Energy is reportedly in talks to revive one of the units at the plant as the state explores energy options.

Government Energy
Three Mile Island Paul Kuehnel/York Daily Record/USA Today

The nuclear generating station at Three Mile Island is shown above across the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and state lawmakers are evaluating whether to restart one of the reactors at the plant where there was a partial meltdown in 1979. The reactor was last in operation in 2019.

Pennsylvania officials and Constellation Energy Corporation are reportedly considering restarting one of the two reactors at Three Mile Island, the notorious site of a 1979 nuclear crisis.

Last week, unnamed sources told Reuters the governor's office and state lawmakers are "beyond preliminary" in their talks with the Baltimore-based energy provider, which was spun off from Exelon two years ago.

The company could look for a public-private partnership at the plant on the island outside Harrisburg. The unit in question operated between 1974 and 2019. The other unit famously had a partial meltdown in March of 1979, sending panic throughout the region and a legacy of skepticism about the nuclear industry's risks and regulatory transparency.

Gov. Josh Shapiro's administration declined to confirm the conversations on Monday but said the governor is committed to updating the state's energy portfolio standards.

“Pennsylvania is an 'all of the above' energy state, and the Shapiro Administration recognizes the role Pennsylvania’s nuclear generation fleet plays in providing safe, reliable, carbon-free electricity that helps reduce emissions and makes Pennsylvania’s energy economy more competitive," spokesperson Manuel Bonder said in a statement.

Constellation Energy could not immediately be reached for comment about its interest in Three Mile Island. The company operates more than a dozen nuclear facilities in the United States, including the Limerick Generating Station in Montgomery County and the Peach Bottom plant in York County. Pennsylvania has five nuclear power plants, including Three Mile Island. 

"Though we have determined it would be technically feasible to restart the unit, we have not made any decision on a restart as there are many economic, commercial, operational and regulatory considerations remaining," Constellation spokesperson Dave Snyder told Reuters.

Support for nuclear power has gained bipartisan momentum in recent years. The technology is touted as a vital part of the strategy to reduce carbon emissions by scaling back reliance on fossil fuels. It's also viewed as a way for the United States to solidify energy independence.

"We're in a climate emergency and any zero-carbon emitting generating sources that can come online are going to help address that," John Quigley, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, said during an interview Monday. "Clearly there are issues and justifiable public concern about safety. There's the perennial issue of the disposal of nuclear waste that the country hasn't solved yet. But looking at every zero-carbon asset is a good thing to do."

The high costs and lengthy time frames to build out nuclear power generation have made it a tough sell in the race to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power accounts for about 18% of electricity in the United States, but only three new reactors have been completed since 1996. There has been optimism about the development of newer nuclear technologies, like small modular reactors and microreactors, but Utah's plan to lead the way in this field was terminated in January because of financial challenges.

"The new round of reactors are just too expensive," Eric Epstein, chairman of the watchdog Three Mile Island Alert, said Monday afternoon. "What has occurred is (that) the path of least resistance seems to be restarting nuclear plants — small plants."

Three Mile Island Alert, founded in 1977, was among the environmental watchdogs opposed to the adoption of nuclear energy. At the time the plant opened in Pennsylvania, nuclear power was seen as an antidote to dependence on foreign energy sources that had wide-ranging effects on the U.S. economy. Decades later, Epstein remains wary of over-investment in nuclear energy because of the long-term dangers of radioactive waste and doubts about the industry's commitments to public safety and sustainability. 

"People that were opposed to (nuclear energy) were marginalized (back then)," Epstein said. "It's interesting that history seems to be repeating itself. We are now fighting a rearguard action like we did in the '70s. ... Nuclear time is hard for people to grasp. Nuclear is forever." 

Three Mile Island persists as a national ground zero for debates about the risks of radioactive exposure, the challenges of nuclear waste management and reliance on water supplies to safely operate plants. The unit that Constellation is considering restarting has not had permission for water use from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission since 2021 and would need to reapply for it, among other regulatory approvals.

When Three Mile Island's 819-megawatt unit closed in 2019, Exelon said it had reliably powered 830,000 homes and businesses during the years the reactor operated. The rapid growth of Pennsylvania's natural gas industry simply made it too difficult for the plant to compete on price. Lack of private investment and limited government incentives have made it difficult for utility companies and policymakers to accelerate the growth of nuclear power.

"The problem Three Mile Island had prior to shutting is it just could not sell its energy on the market," Epstein said.

A possible restart at Three Mile Island could seek to follow a blueprint set in Michigan. In March, the Department of Energy awarded a $1.5 billion conditional loan to reopen the Palisades plant. The United States has yet to reopen a nuclear power plant that previously shut down.

"There might be a federal window where there are resources available to assist in the restart of Three Mile Island if that's that the direction that Constellation goes in," Quigley said.

Last week, Pennsylvania lawmakers relaunched the bipartisan Nuclear Energy Caucus to examine the state's goals for its reactors after the setbacks the industry faced in the last decade. 

"It's early in the game, but there's a lot of talk in Harrisburg about nuclear energy," Quigley said. "It looks like some of the stars are aligning."

There are significant hurdles to restarting the unit at Three Mile Island. The clean-up of the unit that melted down decades ago is expected to continue through 2078. That unit is owned separately from Constellation and relies on a trust fund to remediate the facility.

"The plant is highly radioactive. The radiation is ensconced into the buildings themselves," Epstein said. "You need to have a destructive decommissioning. The fuel, for the most part, is now in Idaho, but the fuel that's left is a really dangerous particulate form. ... That plant is right next to (the one) they want to reopen. That's never been done. You have one plant in the process of an aggressive decommissioning and another in safe storage."

Quigley agreed that there are major dilemmas facing any effort to restart Three Mile Island.

"It's going to be a complicated project if it's undertaken because of the existing material that's got to be disposed of," he said. "That is going to impact the feasibility in all senses of the word — political, economic, technologic. That is an issue, and it is a much tougher nut to crack, as I understand it, than the Palisades plant in Michigan."

The lasting memory of the crisis at Three Mile Island means any future project will need to contend with its history. For decades, federal regulators and the nuclear industry have maintained that the partial meltdown did not release enough radiation to cause increased rates of cancer among workers and community members, although some long-term studies in Dauphin County have suggested otherwise over the years.

The Biden administration's willingness to fund the project in Michigan could be a signal to nuclear advocates in Pennsylvania that national politics could determine the future of Three Mile Island, depending on the outcome of November's presidential election.

"There's certainly concern that the incentives and support that are available today might not survive after January," Quigley said. "There's some urgency from that standpoint. Clearly, restarting a mothballed plant is going to be an expensive proposition, and I'm sure that Constellation has its eye on what kinds of incentives might be available."

Epstein said nuclear energy will undoubtedly be part of the mix in Pennsylvania moving forward but cautioned that lawmakers take a wider view about the future.

"You have to recognize that nuclear is going to be part of the portfolio," he said. "There's five plants. An energy portfolio, in order to be sustainable, cannot be exclusionary. The key word here is diversity. You don't want to pick and choose an energy source and then be hostage to the whims of the marketplace."