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Based on other closed plants, TMI decommissioning might be shortened

By Dan Miller

Posted 9/4/19

Residents and the watchdog group TMI Alert during a July hearing pushed for Exelon to speed up decommissioning Three Mile Island — instead of waiting more than 50 years to finish the job, as …

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Based on other closed plants, TMI decommissioning might be shortened


Residents and the watchdog group TMI Alert during a July hearing pushed for Exelon to speed up decommissioning Three Mile Island — instead of waiting more than 50 years to finish the job, as the company proposes in its plan submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Exelon says waiting until 2075 to finish decommissioning Unit 1 is necessary to provide “a safe environment for our decommissioning workforce by allowing additional time for normal radioactive decay, which results in less waste and lower radiation exposure.”

Waiting also would give Exelon more time to build up its decommissioning trust fund, a pot of money Exelon and other licensees of nuclear plants are required to have to pay for decommissioning.

But other nuclear plants in the United States have chosen to speed up decommissioning.

As more nuclear plants are being shut down because they can no longer compete economically — such as TMI — a new industry is emerging, one poised to take advantage of technological advances that could make possible faster and safer decommissioning.

One is the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant near Vernon, Vermont, which shut down in 2014.

Those who wanted Pennsylvania lawmakers to enact a subsidy to keep TMI open often pointed to Vermont Yankee as an example of the economic impact that can befall an area when a nuclear plant closes.

The closing of Vermont Yankee resulted in the loss of more than 500 jobs and a 20 percent increase in property taxes, according to a report released by the Pennsylvania Nuclear Energy Caucus.

As with Exelon and TMI, the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee by owner Entergy was to take up to 60 years, the amount of time allowed by law under the “SAFSTOR” option of long-term dormancy that Exelon opted for with TMI.

But in 2018, the NRC and the Vermont Public Utility Commission approved plans transferring Vermont Yankee’s nuclear license and ownership to NorthStar, a New York-based industrial demolition company that specializes in decommissioning nuclear plants.

NorthStar says it hopes to finish cleanup of Vermont Yankee by 2026, NorthStar CEO Scott State told VTDigger in an article in July.

Faster decommissioning of TMI would keep more people employed at the plant, protect the tax base, and soften the economic blow of the closure, advocates of hastening the cleanup told the NRC.

Also, the faster TMI is cleaned up, the faster the site can be put to some other kind of use that could provide a new kind of economic benefit, these advocates say.

Moreover, the sooner Unit 1 is cleaned up, the sooner decommissioning can be completed of Unit 2 that was crippled in the March 1979 accident, TMI Alert Chairman Eric Epstein told the NRC during the hearing in July.

Otherwise, it could be 100 years after the accident before Unit 2 is fully cleaned up, Epstein said.

Vermont Yankee and NorthStar aren’t the only examples of this trend. The NRC in recent years has considered the sale or proposed sale of a number of permanently shut down nuclear power plants, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told the Press & Journal in an email.

“The firms acquiring them are all interested in accelerated (short-term) decommissioning versus placing the plant in long-term storage before commencing dismantlement work,” Sheehan said.

He cited Holtec International — another new player in the growing decommissioning industry — having acquired the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey and the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts with plans to decommission those plants within six to eight years.

Holtec also hopes to acquire the Indian Point plant in New York and the Palisades plant in Michigan for the same purpose, Sheehan said.

NorthStar — the company already taking down Vermont Yankee — also hopes to do a speeded up decommissioning of the Crystal River plant in Florida, although current plans call for the plant to remain under its present owner, Duke Energy, Sheehan added.

According to Nuclear Energy Insider, as of October, of the 15 nuclear plants nationwide that have closed or are slated to close — including TMI and Beaver Valley in western Pennsylvania, which is to close in 2021 — nine have chosen the accelerated decommissioning option known as “DECON.”

Only six chose the long-term SAFSTOR option of up to 60 years for decommissioning — including both TMI and Beaver Valley, according to Nuclear Energy Insider.

And while for the moment it appears set in stone that Unit 2 of TMI can’t be cleaned up until Unit 1 is, even that could change.

In July, EnergySolutions Inc. of Charlotte, North Carolina, announced plans to obtain Unit 2 from GPU Nuclear, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy.

It will take months for the deal to work its way through negotiations and obtaining NRC approvals.

But EnergySolutions made clear in its announcement its intention to decommission Unit 2 — and touted the company’s experience in decommissioning nuclear plants thus far, with plans for cleaning up other plants already on the books.