How nuclear power saved Christmas | Opinion

By Rep. Tom Mehaffie

Though the calendar has flipped to spring, an item in the news recently has me still thinking about winter. Specifically, the time right around Christmas. I don’t think Pennsylvanians realize just how close we all were to going dark last Christmas. I’m talking rolling blackouts that would have impacted millions of homes and businesses on Christmas Eve – including all across Central Pennsylvania. Talk about a Grinch!

A new report from PJM, the nation’s largest energy grid operator serving 13 states and the District of Columbia, paints a pretty bleak picture of how poorly many electricity sources performed during Winter Storm Elliott, when temperatures plummeted for several days. Nearly a quarter of the power generation in the PJM territory was not available – just when Pennsylvanians needed it most.

You know what literally saved Christmas? It was the 31 nuclear reactors in PJM, including those in Pennsylvania. PJM found nuclear plants overperformed and were the difference in avoiding the lights – and heat – going out for millions.

We are used to hearing about risks of rolling blackouts in California. But here in Pennsylvania? It’s not something we are accustomed to – nor should we be. It is one of the reasons why I fought so hard several years ago to keep the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant up and running. I said then that we needed to fight not just to keep local jobs and support our economy, but that the Commonwealth could not afford to lose the clean, around-the-clock reliable energy that only nuclear power can provide. Unfortunately, TMI shut down in September 2019. Had TMI been operating in December, alongside those 31 other nuclear reactors in the PJM region, I have no doubt the very real threat of blackouts would have been further diminished.

Five years ago, I joined a bipartisan group of state lawmakers to form the first-ever Nuclear Energy Caucus in Pennsylvania. One of our top priorities was to focus on the value that each energy resource offers Pennsylvania and our citizens. The fact that policymakers did not take decisive and forward-looking action to preserve TMI proves that nuclear power is not properly valued when compared to other sources of electricity.

It is interesting to note that PJM reported that nearly 90-percent of the generation outages during Winter Storm Elliott were among fossil fuel power plants, which experienced fuel shortages and equipment failures. Let’s also remember this latest winter storm is not the first time electricity plants failed to perform, leaving us perilously close to blackouts.

Many of us recall the Polar Vortex of 2014. That brutally cold weather similarly caused over 20-percent of PJM’s generation to go offline. So, PJM instituted changes in 2016 that were supposed to address those problems. Yet despite these changes, the grid performed even worse this time around. Again, I can’t help but believe that allowing TMI to prematurely close – a reliable source of clean energy – contributed to that poor performance.

While we in Pennsylvania were unable to do what was needed to keep TMI open, thankfully state lawmakers DID step in to keep nuclear plants running in other PJM states. All 31 reactors produced more than 96 percent of their potential during even the worst of weather. Thank goodness they did, or Christmas 2022 would have been remembered for all the wrong reasons here in Pennsylvania.

Rep. Tom Mehaffie serves the 106th State House District in Dauphin County, including Londonderry Township, the former site of Three Mile Island.