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Let nuclear plants die or save them

The problem for Three Mile Island is the same one facing many of the nation’s 60 nuclear plants: They are too expensive to operate.

Financial pressure on these facilities is mounting as power demand remains stagnant due to improved energy efficiency, prices remain low for natural gas-fired generation and costs continue to fall for wind and solar power.

Three Mile Island is something of a special case: The 1979 incident left only one of its two reactors operational, but it still employs about as many people as a plant with two reactors, making it less efficient. In the last three regional auctions, when power generators lock in buyers for their future energy generation, no one bought power from Three Mile Island.

But even dual-reactor plants are facing existential threats. FirstEnergy Corp’s Beaver Valley will sell or close its nuclear plant near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border next year as it exits the competitive power generation business.

Five nuclear power plants have shuttered across the country since 2013. Another six have plans to shut down, and four of those would close well ahead of schedule. An analysis by energy research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that more than half of the nation’s nuclear plants are facing some form of financial stress.

Today’s regional energy markets, engineered to produce energy at the lowest cost to consumers, do not take into account that nuclear power generates so much zero-emission electricity. But Dominguez, the Exelon vice president, said that’s out of step with a world increasingly concerned about climate change.

“What we see is increasingly our customers are interested in getting electricity from zero air pollution sources,” Dominguez said. “The old compromise — that in order to have a reliable, affordable electric system you had to deal with a significant amount of air pollution — is a compromise our new customers today don’t want to hear about.”

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