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Exelon: TMI shutdown process reversible but real

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Exelon Generation acknowledged that it's still possible to throttle back closure plans for the money-losing Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, but without legislative relief that's not likely to happen.

"Yes, these things are reversible," David I. Fein, the company's vice president for state government affairs, told the Business Journal Friday afternoon.

But, he added, Exelon's decision to notify federal and power industry officials of its intention to close the Dauphin County plant in September 2019 "is not some veiled attempt" to extract concessions from state lawmakers.

With $300 million in losses over the past five years, Illinois-based Exelon informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of its intention by letter earlier this week, Three Mile Island spokesman Dave Marcheskie said Friday morning.

An earlier step, providing 18-month advance notice to grid operator PJM, took place on May 30.

Exelon announced in May that the plant might be facing a premature closure after it failed to sell power at the regional PJM electricity auction for the third year in a row.

Exelon, which also operates the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in York County, is still hoping lawmakers in Harrisburg will step in to find solutions to the nuclear industry's concerns, as cheaper natural gas continues to hamper profitability, as at TMI.

Such measures could include enacting "zero-emissions credits" programs, which effectively provide subsidies to nuclear plants as one part of a plan to reward generation facilities that do not create fossil fuel emissions.

That has been done in Exelon's home state of Illinois, as well as in New York state.

But Fein also acknowledged that such action does not appear to be immediately on the horizon in Pennsylvania — and likely not before Sept. 1, which is the deadline for another regulatory step: informing PJM whether TMI will participate in PJM's power auction next May.

"Right now they're focused on getting a budget done," Fein said of state lawmakers. "There are other policy considerations on their plate."

Exelon will continue to engage with policy makers about pro-nuclear policies "even if any kind of policy relief comes too late to save TMI," Fein said.

War of words

Critics took aim at that stance on Friday.

"The Illinois-based corporation recently notified federal and power industry officials that it intends to close the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 2019: What Exelon fails to disclose, however, is that this week's filing is not a binding notice but rather another attempt by the company to apply pressure to Pennsylvania legislators to enact a ratepayer bailout that will increase consumer electricity prices," said Steve Kratz, a spokesman for the Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts Coalition.

The organization, which includes other players in the energy industry, is opposing any use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize nuclear power.

Fein questioned the group's makeup and motives.

"Who's driving this coalition? Of course it's companies that stand to profit. This is not a citizens' group; it's a bunch of fossil-fuel generating interests that want to see the plant close," he said.

Kratz replied that the coalition includes AARP, Americans for Prosperity, Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, National Federation of Independent Businesses "and many others who are concerned that bailing out a single industry will undermine Pennsylvania's competitive electricity markets and will increase consumer electricity prices."

Fein said the nuclear industry is just looking for the same breaks other clean-energy industries receive, and bristled at the suggestion that Exelon is playing politics.

"This is real," Fein said. "Having been someone who's had to stand in front of hundreds of employees and address their questions, this is not something the company takes lightly."

He said it was premature to discuss when and how layoffs at TMI, which employs 675 people, would take place, but that "the plan would be to maintain similar staffing levels throughout the period that the plant is in operation."

To that end, a planned 2017 refueling shutdown is expected to take place later this year as scheduled, Fein added. That process usually brings in an added 1,500 workers.

TMI’s employees are drawn mostly from Lancaster (202) and Dauphin (193) counties, Exelon spokeswoman Lacey Dean has said. A further 76 live in York County, with the remainder coming from surrounding areas.

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Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @rogerdupuis2.

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