“I think it’s a sad moment for all,” said Richard Drey, the business manager for a local chapter of an electric workers’ union, which represents about 200 people who work at the facility. “We thought there was still hope in keeping the place open. It’s going to have a devastating effect on some of the families.” (Exelon said it would offer jobs to workers who were willing to relocate.)
The plant on Three Mile Island, which sits in the Susquehanna River near Middletown in central Pennsylvania, has been struggling financially for years. Exelon announced as early as 2017 that it would close down the plant “absent needed policy reforms.” Supporters of nuclear energy went after those reforms: Two bills were introduced in the State Legislature that would have steered about $500 million to clean power producers in Pennsylvania, with nuclear plants as the main beneficiaries.
That might have kept Three Mile Island open, but no action was taken on the measures.
Accidents like the one at Three Mile Island make it difficult for nuclear power facilities to present themselves as clean and safe, even though they do not generate planet-warming greenhouse gases. And cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing has forced some American nuclear reactors to cease operations.
With these closures comes a new problem: What to do with all of the hazardous waste?
“Nobody believes an island is a suitable site to store radioactive waste,” said Eric Epstein, the chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, a nuclear watchdog group based in Harrisburg, Pa., that was founded two years before the 1979 accident. He said the cleanup efforts on the island should be prioritized, which could bring employment opportunities to people losing their jobs.
“This is not a time for celebration,” he said. “It’s a time for a reality check. When it comes to nuclear, and cleaning up plants, we’re entering a really long and challenging phase.”
According to the World Nuclear Association, a London-based group that promotes nuclear power, there are 98 operating nuclear reactors in the United States. Last year, they accounted for 20 percent of the country’s total electricity output. In Pennsylvania, there are four other power plants operating outside of Three Mile Island.