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Watchdog group questions usage of fund for Three Mile Island’s dry cask storage

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/31/19

Debate over when Exelon should decommission its nuclear plant on Three Mile Island was one of several issues raised by residents and activists at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public …

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Watchdog group questions usage of fund for Three Mile Island’s dry cask storage

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Debate over when Exelon should decommission its nuclear plant on Three Mile Island was one of several issues raised by residents and activists at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public hearing July 23.

Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, referred to TMI Alert opposing a request Exelon has made to the NRC for an exemption that would allow Exelon to use money from its Unit 1 decommissioning fund to build a spent fuel dry cask storage facility on the island.

Used spent fuel from Unit 1 is to stay in the spent fuel pool until 2022, when it is to be moved to the dry cask storage.

In objections TMI Alert provided to the NRC separate from the July 23 hearing, Epstein said that at every other nuclear plant in Pennsylvania — Beaver Valley, Limerick, Peach Bottom and Susquehanna — plant owners have used their own corporate funds to build spent fuel dry casks, instead of using money in the decommissioning fund raised from ratepayers.

The Unit 1 decommissioning fund totals $669 million as of Dec. 31, 2018, according to the Exelon plan. But the radiological decommissioning for Unit 1 — over 50 years from now — will cost just more than $1 billion, according to the plan.

Exelon gave a total decommissioning cost estimate of $1.2 billion in a press release that the company gave to reporters at the hearing.

By Exelon’s own numbers, the fund is already short well over $300 million, Epstein pointed out.

He further contended Exelon’s decommissioning cost estimate is too low and unrealistic, because it doesn’t fully factor labor costs, changes in interest rates and tax laws, inflation, and cost mandates tied to remediation of the Chesapeake Bay due to Unit 1 being on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River.

For example, Epstein, also a Central Dauphin school board member, noted the school district’s costs for aluminum and iron increased by $350,000 this year, due to tariffs put in place by the Trump administration.

“This is reality, folks. Do you think dry cask costs are fixed? … I plead with you, do not allow Exelon to raid the fund. If you go down this path, it’s like allowing a bank robber to guard your security box,” Epstein said.

Exelon has already received over $300 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for spent fuel management, so Exelon will be “double dipping” if the NRC allows the company to use its decommissioning fund for the same purpose, Epstein said.

As evidence of “the unreliability of decommissioning cost projections” at TMI, Epstein in his written comments to the NRC pointed to the decommissioning cost estimate for the crippled Unit 2 reactor.

The original $200 million estimate to decommission Unit 2 has grown to $1.26 billion. The trust fund balance is $834 million, or $365 million below the “minimal level” needed to clean up Unit 2, Epstein wrote, citing NRC figures.

However, Exelon in its statement said the company’s request to use money from the Unit 1 decommissioning trust fund to pay for storage is “a common practice across the industry.”

The trust fund “should fully cover the cost of decommissioning” Unit 1, Exelon said in the release. “If there were a shortfall, Exelon would be responsible for the rest.”

Susquehanna Township resident Patti Smith questioned the NRC panel on whether the public will have a chance to give input on Exelon’s exemption request regarding use of the decommissioning trust fund money.

Watson said the exemption request is a matter of review by NRC staff and that there is no opportunity for public input — unless the state of Pennsylvania chooses to “weigh in” on it.

“You’re saying it’s ratepayers’ money, but ratepayers have no voice in it?” Smith asked.

“Not according to NRC regulations,” Watson said.

Epstein told the Press & Journal in a separate phone interview after the hearing that TMI Alert requested the NRC hold a public hearing as part of the exemption request, but the agency rejected the request.

The state auditor general has also requested the NRC hold a public hearing as part of the exemption request, according to Epstein.

Gary Miller, a spokesman for the AG’s office, said that the AG at Epstein’s urging “did suggest” to the NRC that the NRC hold a hearing. The NRC replied that the topic could be discussed during the July 23 public hearing, Miller told the Press & Journal in an email.

The NRC received the exemption request from Exelon in April. The agency typically takes a year to review such requests, so a decision is not likely before April 2020, NRC project manager Justin C. Poole told Smith at the hearing.

Besides the July 23 public hearing, residents have until Oct. 9 to submit comments to the NRC regarding the decommissioning report submitted by Exelon for Unit 1.

But that’s an exercise in futility, according to Epstein, who opened his remarks at the hearing by saying, “I have zero confidence in the process. I actually think this is a choreographed farce.”

Not so, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told the Press & Journal after the hearing.

“We want to hear from people who live in the community and who might be able to shed light on issues we are not aware of,” Sheehan said.

For example, he noted concerns expressed by Dusty McMillen, who lives with her husband across from TMI, over how fracking could increase chances of an earthquake that could damage structures on the island.

McMillen also observed how climate change is leading to rising levels of the Susquehanna River, increasing flood possibilities.

That’s something to think about, as the dry cask storage is to be at ground level, Sheehan noted. “This is valuable input from people who live in the community. It helps better inform our process.”

Sheehan said the Exelon report is not subject to NRC approval, but for the NRC to “review to make sure it is consistent with our requirements.”

If the plan does not meet requirements, the NRC can raise these issues with Exelon and request the company make changes.

If Exelon does not act, “we have a formalized request for additional information that they would be compelled to respond to, and if not, we can always look at enforcement,” Sheehan said.

The enforcement tools are primarily civil in nature, but criminal prosecution is possible if Exelon was found to be taking “deliberate” action to avoid complying with requirements, Sheehan said.