TMI in trouble?

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. (WHTM) – Is the natural gas boom causing nuclear power to go bust?

It is a valid question and concerning to energy experts.

The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant has been lighting and heating the Midstate and beyond since the 1970’s.

“This is a very reliable source of energy,” said Ralph DeSantis, spokesman for TMI’s parent company Exelon. “We run 24/7. We make enough power for over 800,000 homes, day in and day out. The power grid can rely on us to be there.”

But increasingly, the power grid is relying on natural gas, which is muscling nuclear out of the marketplace.

“Nuclear power plants in the United States are definitely being challenged right now,” DeSantis admits, “and again, it’s because of the low price of gas.”

PJM, manager of the regional power grid, recently rejected a bid from TMI to provide future power in return for guaranteed payments because TMI’s price was too high. It’s a financial blow to the plant and the company. Exelon announced it will close one of its plants and is considering shuttering others. As for TMI, Exelon’s commitment is solid until mid-2018, just two years from right now.

“We’re looking at all options for future operability of the plant,” DeSantis said. “We’re hopeful the power markets will recover and the plant can continue operating.”

That’s not exactly a powerful assurance.

“Natural gas has now overtaken nuclear and coal as the largest resource in Pennsylvania,” said John F. Coleman Jr., a commissioner with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Coleman says bountiful gas and low prices are good for consumers but adds that a healthy power grid requires different energy sources like coal, oil, wind, solar and nuclear. It’s called a diverse portfolio.

“If you have five restaurants in town, everybody is competing and keeping each other honest in terms of prices and they keep each other in check,” Coleman said. “If you have one, that really changes the dynamic doesn’t it?”

To compete, Exelon is lobbying for subsidies from both state and federal authorities like wind and solar have gotten.

DeSantis calls it leveling the playing field.

“We’re not being compensated for the cleanliness of our power. Nuclear power does not emit any carbon into the atmosphere and we think there should be some value put on that,” he said.

But others see the demise of nuclear power.

“Nuclear’s future is bleak and it has everything to do with Wall Street,” said Eric Epstein, chairman of the nuclear watchdog group TMI Alert.

It seems economics are doing to nuclear power what environmentalists couldn’t. Epstein says don’t take his word for it. Ask your financial planner.

“Ask if they think investing in nuclear power is a good idea and the answer is almost always no,” Epstein said.

Anti-nuclear watchdogs might applaud a world without nuclear. Coleman said it is a concerning development for the PUC.

“We’re gonna have to take a close look at this because once you decommission a nuclear facility, it’s highly unlikely you’ll bring it back online,” he said.

DeSantis said TMI employs 700 full-time workers and has more than a thousand seasonal employees.

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