Official: TMI decommissioning could take decades

Traffic travels south on Route 441 near the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County, Friday, March 15, 2019. The plant's Unit 2 reactors have been shut down since the March 28,1979, partial meltdown. Bill Kalina photo

Three Mile Island's operating nuclear reactor is shutting down in September, but its towers will mark the skyline for decades.

The option of SAFSTOR — which would put the Dauphin County plant in an extended state of dormancy until 2075 — is not uncommon for decommissioning, according to officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

Jack Parrott, senior project manager at the NRC for several decommissioning plans, called the process of shutting down a plant "more akin to a marathon than a sprint." 

Eleven reactors are under SAFSTOR, officials explained during webinars for the media and public on Tuesday, July 16.

The benefits are a 1% to 2% reduction in radioactivity, which makes dismantling structures safer for workers; a reduction of about 10% in radioactive waste volume, creating a cost savings for disposal; and time for the decommissioning trust fund to grow.

When asked by a member of the public why the approximately $670 million in the fund as of December does not seem to cover the cost estimates of more than $1 billion for decommissioning, about $158 million for fuel management and about $86 million for site restoration, officials said funds would continue to accrue over many years.

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The NRC requires separate funds for fuel management and decommissioning, but almost all plants — including Three Mile Island — have requested an exemption to use the decommissioning trust fund for both, according to the commission.

New decommissioning regulations under consideration would eliminate the need for the exemption, said Marlayna Vaaler, a decommissioning project manager at the NRC. Each plant owner must submit annual DTF reports to the NRC each March.

Eric Epstein, chairman of the anti-nuclear watchdog group TMI-Alert, asked about a Department of Energy lawsuit payout to TMI and other plants to deal with radioactive waste and why Exelon was "double dipping" with that money and DTF funds.

Officials said they could not answer his detailed questions and would bring a financial representative to a public meeting July 23.

Epstein also had a concern about storing spent fuel on site past 60 years if the DOE is not ready to collect it when the time comes.

Bruce Watson, who works in decommissioning and waste programs at the NRC, said 

there are applications in for two interim spent fuel facilities in Texas and New Mexico under NRC review, but he cannot comment on where they are in the process.

NRC officials noted spent fuel can be stored safely for more than 100 years.

Another factor to consider with Exelon Generation's Unit 1 reactor is its relationship to FirstEnergy's Unit 2 reactor, which remains dormant after a partial meltdown in 1979.

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Watson said  Tuesday that debris and melted fuel are still dispersed in the cooling system of TMI-2 and confirmed it cannot be decommissioned before TMI-1.

Unless there's an exemption granted, however, TMI-2 is bound to decommission within 60 years, he said, and the NRC would take action and possibly prosecute the owner if this does not happen.

Many residents and members of the public had questions about the decommissioning process, including changes in emergency drills and water monitoring. 

TMI-1 will drop down to the second-lowest alert level, according to the NRC, and would move to an all-hazard emergency plan instead of an offsite radiological response, if an exemption is granted, officials said.

Further questions will be addressed from 6 to 9 p.m.  on Tuesday, July 23, at the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey Hotel, 4650 Lindie Road, in Swatara Township, Dauphin County.