Three Mile Island, site of 1979 nuclear accident, to close in 2019

May 30 (Reuters) - Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island power plant will close in 2019, forty years after it was the site of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, as low natural gas prices make the costs of atomic energy uncompetitive, its owner said on Tuesday.

The plant's name has been synonymous with public fears over the risks associated with nuclear power since the plant suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, sparking sweeping new rules for handling emergencies at nuclear sites.

No one died during the 1979 meltdown and a federal review found minimal health effects in the 2 million people who lived near the central Pennsylvania plant, situated about 180 miles (300 km) west of New York City.

Exelon Corp, the U.S. power company that owns the Middletown, Pennsylvania, power plant, said it will close by Sept. 30, 2019, unless the state adopts rules to compensate the company for benefits Exelon says nuclear power provides.

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Three Mile Island
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A sign announces the closing of the observation center for the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, following an accident on March 28, 1979. A pump failed in the reactor cooling system, shutting down the plant and threatening a nuclear meltdown. (Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)
Checking for radioactivity with a Geiger counter near the nuclear power plant a few days after the accident of March 28, 1979. | Location: Middeltown, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo by John Giannini/Sygma via Getty Images)
A woman cares for her plants in her house near the nuclear power plant a few days after the accident of March 28, 1979. | Location: Middeltown, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo by John Giannini/Sygma via Getty Images)
1979: The Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the scene of a notorious nuclear leak. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
A cooling system leak caused a shutdown of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant. Damage was minor.
The Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, two days after a meltdown that forced the closure of the plant.
CANADA - MARCH 31: Worker checks radiation levels during Three Mile Island mishap: Terrorists learned from it (Photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Nukes -- Glen Hess, a utility worker at the Three Mile Island plant checks this morning's radiation; level with his dosimeter in front of the plant. (Marsha Will prove level for us). April 03, 1979. (Photo by Martha Cooper/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
This image depicts the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, which was the site of a March 28, 1979 power plant accident. The accident at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant was the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community. It brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations. It also caused the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to tighten and heighten its regulatory oversight. Resultant changes in the nuclear power industry and at the NRC had the effect of enhancing safety. Image courtesy CDC. 1990. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
(Original Caption) 9/24/1979-Middletown, PA: Actress Jane Fonda and husband Tom Hayden pose for photographers in front of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant here 9/24. Fonda and Hayden are on a 50 city political tour; they hold anti-nuclear viewpoints.
(Original Caption) 5/17/1979-Middletown, PA: Looking somewhat like a figure out of the movie 'Star Wars', an unidentified technician for Metropolitan Edison Power Company uses a long sensitive meter to measure the radiation inside the three mile Island Power Plant here 5/17. He accompanied members of the President's Commission on Three Mile Island as they held an extended tour of the crippled plant in their investigation to determine the cause of the accident which shut the plant down.
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Chris Crane, Exelon president and CEO, in a statement urged Pennsylvania "to preserve its nuclear energy facilities and the clean, reliable energy and good-paying jobs they provide."

Three Mile Island employs about 675 people, produces enough electricity to power 800,000 homes and pays more than $1 million in state property taxes a year, the company said.

Low natural gas prices from abundant shale formations like Pennsylvania's Marcellus have helped keep power prices low for years, making it difficult for nuclear reactors to compete with gas-fired generators in deregulated power markets in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest.

Since 2013, the nuclear industry has shut six reactors for economic reasons before their licenses expired in California, Florida, Nebraska, Vermont and Wisconsin, and plan to shut at least six more over the next five years.

'CHINA SYNDROME'

The movie "The China Syndrome," about a fictitious near-meltdown at a California nuclear plant, came out two weeks before the real-life crisis at Three Mile Island. In the film, Jane Fonda, playing a TV reporter, says a meltdown could "render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable."

New York and Illinois adopted rules in 2016 to provide payments to nuclear reactors to keep the units in service to help meet state carbon reduction goals and keep the jobs, taxes and fuel diversification the plants provide.

At least four other states are considering similar policies to provide additional revenue to keep their reactors in service, including Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Other power generators that would benefit if the reactors shut down, however, have challenged New York and Illinois' nuclear payments in federal court, arguing the rules unfairly subsidize one fuel source in a federally administered competitive market and will boost ratepayer costs.

Exelon said that despite producing 93 percent of Pennsylvania's emissions-free electricity and avoiding 37 million tons of carbon emissions — the equivalent of keeping 10 million cars off the road every year — nuclear power is not included in the state's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which includes 16 power sources including solar, wind and hydro energy.

Exelon said it will take a one-time charge of $65-110 million for 2017 for the early retirement of Three Mile Island, and accelerate about $1.0-1.1 billion in depreciation and amortization through the announced shutdown date.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)

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