FirstEnergy Corp. said it will shut down three nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania within the next three years, making it the latest U.S. utility to announce closings as the nuclear industry struggles to compete with electricity plants that burn plentiful and inexpensive natural gas.
The company announced the closings Wednesday and a day later appealed to the U.S. Department of Energy for help, asking that it be allowed to get more money for electricity produced by its nuclear and coal-fired plants. It said in its request that the closings of its nuclear plants could threaten the reliability of the electric grid across the East Coast.
FirstEnergy said Wednesday that it would be willing to work with both Ohio and Pennsylvania to find a way to keep the plants open, but lawmakers remain unwilling to offer a financial rescue and it appears the plants are nearing a shutdown.
The natural gas boom and increasing use of renewable energy have combined in recent years to squeeze the nation's aging nuclear reactors, which are expensive to operate and maintain.
New York and Illinois have responded by giving out billion-dollar bailouts that will be paid by ratepayers to stop unprofitable nuclear plants from closing prematurely.
But similar proposals have met with resistance in Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as in Ohio and Pennsylvania, because such subsidies would cause utility bills to increase.
Some proponents of nuclear power say the plants are needed to maintain a diverse lineup of energy sources, arguing that while natural gas is cheap now, that might not always be the case. They also say the nuclear plants are vital to the rural towns where they're located, providing millions of dollars in tax money for schools and local governments.
In Ohio, where FirstEnergy is based, state lawmakers said earlier this year that there would be no more hearings on a proposal to increase electric bills to give the company's plants an extra $180 million a year.
FirstEnergy said it plans to close its Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo in 2020, and that a year later it will shut down the Perry plant near Cleveland and its Beaver Valley operation in Pennsylvania.
"Though the plants have taken aggressive measures to cut costs, the market challenges facing these units are beyond their control," said Don Moul, president of FirstEnergy Solutions, a subsidiary that runs the nuclear plants.
The three plants, built in the 1970s, employ a combined 2,300 people who would be affected by the closings.
PJM Interconnection, which operates the electric grid covering 65 million people from Illinois east to Washington, is likely to review the impact the potential closings would have on it.
The Davis-Besse plant has had its share of operational problems since it opened four decades ago.
It was the site of the worst corrosion ever found at a U.S. reactor when inspectors discovered an acid leak that closed the plant for extensive repairs from 2002 to 2004.