Three Mile Island to Shut Down, 100 People Expected to Die

Last Wednesday, Exelon announced that the last nuclear reactor operating at Three Mile Island (TMI) would close by September 30th. For those still living with fear after what is described as the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, this sounds like cause for celebration. Those concerned about lung, heart, and brain diseases, as well as the environment, however, might want to think twice before breaking out the Champagne.

Air pollution already accounts for over 8 million annual deaths worldwide, and since 1986 oil and gas accidents have resulted in over $8 billion in financial damages. Coal use will increase immediately as Pennsylvania and surrounding states still rely on those dirty and toxic plants for base-load power. The increase in coal use, along with the increase in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from additional reliance on methane, aka “natural gas”, can cause  100 premature deaths annually, because of TMI’s premature closure. Mark Szybist, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “We’re at a point where if nuclear retires immediately, we would probably replace it with natural gas generation because we haven’t sufficiently planned to replace it with something cleaner.” Unfortunately replacing Three Mile Island’s output with fossil methane will dump an additional 3.2 million tons of CO2 emissions into Pennsylvania’s air every year. Should a $50 per ton carbon price come into place, swapping Three Mile Island’s functioning plant with fossil fuels will tack on an additional social and environmental price tag of around $350-$500 million.

Nuclear power currently supplies just over 19% of U.S. electricity, while producing zero CO2 emissions. For comparison, all non-hydro renewables together totaled about 8.5% of U.S. electricity generation. It’s tempting to imagine the United States replacing nuclear power completely with more renewables but, according to Dr. Michael Shellenberger, that scenario isn’t just unlikely—it’s currently unfeasible. Solar farms take up 450 times more land than nuclear power plants to produce the same amount of energy, while wind farms take 700 times more land.

Shale-fracked methane gas has dominated new energy builds and that’s a climate disaster. But many environmentalists are still confused. Fossil gas consumption is healthier for humans in the short term than coal, but when more than 1% of the fracked gas leaks into the atmosphere unburned its greenhouse climate damage is worse than coal. There are leaks everywhere in the system from the well to the burner and in the 100 year old cast iron pipes beneath our cities. Many places leak 7% of their gas unburned, such as Southern California, but the overall industrial “fugitive emissions” numbers are unreported or industry self-reported with unbelievable variances.

Another bad reason to favor fossil methane is the momentary cheap price. Bloomberg shows the fracking business, built on 0% interest rate, is now losing money and forced to accelerate borrowing Ponzi-style.  It’s dangerous to increase our addiction to fracked methane at affordable prices.

There are good reasons why gas wins, for now: Smaller budgets for construction.  Less uncertainty in construction cost.

For nuclear power to expand in the future, it needs to match those qualities and that is easy to do. Nuclear, like gas, will be very easy to construct on schedule, due to use of factory-built transportable equipment made of standard parts. When an effort is made to manufacture and ship small nuclear power plants, they outperform natural gas economically around the world, as well as in safety and climate impact.

However, policies that encourage green energy often exclude nuclear power, leaving zero-carbon plants unable to compete against cheaper fossil fuels. Companies like NuScale Power hope to reverse that trend by building small modular reactors, which can be mass-produced quickly at low cost. A 2018 study by MIT suggests that decarbonization without nuclear will be costly and slow, as we must build out more renewable storage to replace existing, functional, and safe zero-emissions nuclear plans.

Andrew Place, of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, found that at a 1% annual changeover rate replacing the energy loss from Three Mile Island with alternative clean energy sources would take 5-11 years alone. With climate change already damaging our coastal cities, burning our wilderness, and hurting our vulnerable populations, air pollution is a global and local health hazard. We are committing suicide!