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When to start TMI cleanup? Exelon wants to wait years, but watchdog group says do it now

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/31/19

Exelon wants to wait more than 50 years to finish the cleanup of Unit 1 of Three Mile Island, which the company has decided to shut down less than two months from now.

But Unit 1 could — and …

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When to start TMI cleanup? Exelon wants to wait years, but watchdog group says do it now

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Exelon wants to wait more than 50 years to finish the cleanup of Unit 1 of Three Mile Island, which the company has decided to shut down less than two months from now.

But Unit 1 could — and should — be cleaned up immediately, several residents and members of the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during a public hearing the NRC held July 23 on Exelon’s decommissioning plan.

Unit 1 must be decommissioned within 60 years, according to federal regulations, Bruce Watson, who presided over the hearing for the NRC, told those gathered at the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey Hotel.

Watson is branch chief of the Reactor Decommissioning Branch for the NRC.

The decommissioning plan Exelon has submitted to the NRC chooses an option known as SAFSTOR, or safe storage.

Used fuel from Unit 1 is to be placed in a spent fuel pool as of Sept. 30, the date Unit 1 is being prematurely shut down by Exelon.

Fuel would be moved to dry cask storage by about 2022. But actual decommissioning operations at Unit 1 would be delayed until 2075, under the plan Exelon has submitted to the NRC.

Exelon says SAFSTOR “provides a safe environment for our decommissioning workforce by allowing additional time for normal radioactive decay, which results in less waste and lower radiation exposure.”

Exelon chose long-term safe storage over another option known as DECON, where “equipment, structures and portions of the facility and site that contain radioactive contaminants are promptly removed or decontaminated to a level that permits termination of the license shortly after cessation of operations,” according to the Exelon decommissioning plan.

But decommissioning of Unit 1 should begin now, Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, said at the hearing.

“An accelerated cleanup through DECON would employ more people, protect the tax base and preserve the institutional knowledge we have here,” Epstein said. “None of those things are factored by you in this. In 60 years that goes away. You have no criteria and no way of preserving that institutional knowledge. That’s why I think it makes sense to clean the plant up immediately.”

Cleaning the plant up now would help provide employment for the hundreds of people losing their jobs from Exelon closing the plant, softening the economic blow to the region, said resident and activist Gene Stilp.

Full-time employment at TMI in Londonderry Township will be slashed from 675 to 300, shortly after Sept. 30 when the used fuel is moved to the spent fuel pool, according to the Exelon decommissioning plan.

Full-time staffing will be down to 200 by 2021, and to about 50 by 2022.

Epstein also noted that decommissioning Three Mile Island Unit 2 — the reactor dormant since the March 1979 accident — cannot be completed until Unit 1 is decommissioned.

“Whatever decision you make is basically a decision on TMI 2,” he told the NRC panel. “It is fundamentally manifestly unfair that we are even discussing the likely cleanup of TMI 2 to 100 years after the accident. (Out of a)  sense of fairness and fair play for the people around here is that we get to it right now. You have the workers, you have the expertise, why not use them?”

But there are “some advantages” to Exelon waiting, Watson noted. “As the time goes on the radioactive material decays, the actual dose rates for the workers going in to remove and dismantle the plant are reduced significantly as time goes on.”

In any event, the decision of how soon to decommission Unit 1 is up to Exelon, not the NRC, according to Watson.

“It’s solely the licensee or in this case Exelon’s decision when to do the decommissioning,” Watson said. “We will be there to make sure it is safe and secure during that entire period. We presently inspect Unit 2 at least annually. We will continue to inspect the plant … we’re going to be there to make sure it is safe and secure, but (it is) Exelon’s decision as to the rate they decommission the plant.”

Epstein insisted Exelon could decommission the plant sooner if it wanted to.

“They did it at Zion and they are going to do it at Oyster Creek,” Epstein said, referring to other Exelon nuclear plants being decommissioned in Illinois and New Jersey. “This is a decision that (Exelon) is making to walk away from their commitment. They are going to mothball TMI 1. That’s exactly what played out at TMI 2 … it’s in limbo. If you allow this plant to sit in limbo until 2075, that means TMI 2 sits in limbo until 2075 — 100 years after the accident.”

Watson at the end of the hearing did note having heard “numerous times” from those in the audience “that you would like to have the site cleaned up now.”

That is “a very strong comment that I think Exelon should take into consideration,” Watson said.