'Neighbors to a waste dump': Public begs for earlier TMI decommissioning

Eric Epstein, chairmain of ant-nuclear watchdog group TMI-Alert speaks at a public meeting on the decommissioning of Dauphin County nuclear plant Three Mile Island on Tuesday, July 23.

Almost 200 years ago, Patricia Longenecker's great-grandfather would walk along the river past what is now Three Mile Island, she said.

Her cousins across the river "grew the best melons in the whole area," she said, because it was a flood plain — but today, high-level waste is a risk if the Dauphin County nuclear facility sees another storm as powerful as Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

"We never thought 40 years later, we would have to think of us becoming neighbors to a waste dump that will outlive our lives," said Longenecker, of Lancaster County.

TMI's Unit 2 reactor suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, and its cleanup hinges on the decommissioning of Unit 1, which would not begin until 2075.

Exelon earlier this year announced the plant's closure after state lawmakers failed to approve a subsidy for nuclear power plants. 

Longenecker was among more than 50 people who attended a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing Tuesday, July 23. The NRC is providing oversight of Exelon's decommissioning of TMI-1.

Longenecker and others criticized Exelon's decadeslong plan, which involves putting Unit 1 into an extended period of dormancy before decommissioning begins.

“I actually think this is a choreographed farce,” said Eric Epstein, chairman of anti-nuclear watchdog group TMI-Alert.

Epstein and others who spoke at the meeting don't have faith the NRC will close the chapter on Three Mile Island  — which according to its current decommissioning schedule, those who were alive during the accident would not even live to see.

"The faces change, the outcome always stays the same," said local activist Gene Stilp, a former member of TMI-Alert.

Activist Gene Stilp (left) speaks at a Three Mile Island decommissioning hearing as Scott Portzline, of anti-nuclear watchdog group TMI-Alert (middle) and Kim Conway, TMI-2 project manager (right) listen. 

The public meeting was held Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The Unit 1 reactor will shutdown September 30.

Unit 2 was supposed to be cleaned up by 2008, Epstein said. Decommissioning sooner would employ more people — workers whose expertise will be lost in 60 years, he said, and others agreed. 

Spent fuel would be moved to dry cask storage by about 2022, at which point staffing would be reduced from more than 600 to about 50 workers, according to Exelon.

But the company stated that waiting would allow radioactive materials more time to decay, lowering exposure levels and lessening waste.

Bruce Watson, who works in decommissioning and waste programs at the NRC, noted that Exelon officials could switch to a more immediate option at any time. TMI-2 would have until 2053 to hit its 60-year decommissioning requirement.

A panel of Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, left to right: Justin Poole, Steve Hammann, Bruce Watson, hears public comment at a Three Mile Island decommissioning hearing Tuesday, July 23.

EnergySolutions announced Tuesday that it will acquire TMI-2 from FirstEnergy, and Exelon expects to continue coordinating decommissioning activities between the two units, said Liz Williamson, senior manager for Nuclear Communications at Exelon.

Residents also were concerned with safety of the fuel storage — from earthquakes, flooding and air attacks.

Scott Portzliner, another member of TMI-Alert, fears  TMI-2 releasing radioactive water if flooded, and several others had concerns based on area flooding.

Dry casks — which are made of stainless steel and concrete — are impervious to weather and air attacks, officials said. Unit 1 will have 46 canisters — altogether about the size of a football field. It can withstand the worst flooding estimated in 100 years, according to Exelon.

Keith Gutshall, who has worked on TMI refueling outages, likened the decommissioning process to another outage, which “always go without a hitch.” But Portzline said those have still had minor concerns.

Joyce Corradi, of the Concerned Mothers and Women activist group, said the NRC was supposedly watching over the people who caused the accident.

"My biggest concern is that you as an entity consider strictly the health and well-being of this community when this process happens," not money or the company, she said.

Watson said the site gets safer and safer as time goes on, and after about a year and a half, fuel can no longer cause an offsite release.

A number of financial issues arose at the meeting, including Exelon's use of ratepayer money and a Department of Energy lawsuit payout, and the impact of reduced liability insurance on taxpayers.

The Decommissioning Trust Fund is built with ratepayer money, and Exelon requested an exemption to use some of that money for the fuel management.

That request has been granted to other plants in five or six cases, as long as there's adequate money available for decommissioning, officials said.

But the costs covered in the $1.2 billion decommissioning price tag are minimal and do not include things such as regional labor costs, inflation and changing interest rates, Epstein said.

One resident said ratepayers shouldn't have to pay for decommissioning at all, and others questioned why there would be no public meeting on the exemption request — which would be decided in April.

“That timeframe leaves us as consumers without a voice," said TMI Alert member Maureen Mulligan, adding it's not enough time for legislation or NRC rule changes.

It speaks to a major problem in politics and in government that the public has no say in what happens to them and their money, said Patty Smith, also of TMI-Alert.

"They are just protecting their self-interests," she said of Exelon. "There's no one protecting us."