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Three Mile Island nuclear reactor dismantling could take six decades, more than $1 billion

A critic says Exelon's prolonged decommissioning timeline is a "veiled extortion attempt" to induce Pennsylvania policymakers to rescue the state's nuclear industry.

Exelon announced plans Friday for decommissioning the Three Mile Island Unit 1 reactor after shutdown in September. The plans call for the dismantlement of the iconic cooling towers in 2074, and final site restoration in 2079-2081. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Exelon announced plans Friday for decommissioning the Three Mile Island Unit 1 reactor after shutdown in September. The plans call for the dismantlement of the iconic cooling towers in 2074, and final site restoration in 2079-2081. CLEM MURRAY / Staff PhotographerRead moreClem Murray / File Photograph

Exelon Generation, which plans to shut down Three Mile Island Unit 1 nuclear reactor in September unless Pennsylvania lawmakers come to its rescue, says it would take nearly 60 years and $1.2 billion to completely decommission the Dauphin County site.

The company, in a report filed Friday with federal regulators, said it plans to remove Unit 1′s nuclear fuel from the reactor immediately after shutdown. The uranium fuel-rod assemblies would cool in spent fuel pools for three years until they are moved to above-ground sealed canisters in 2022.

But the reactor’s cooling towers and other large components would remain standing until 2074, according to Exelon’s Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, filed Friday with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. All radioactive material would be safely stored or removed from the site by 2078.

Plant operators are required to submit a decommissioning plan within two years of shutdown, but the timing of the report provided Exelon with an opportunity to refocus public attention on pending Pennsylvania legislation that would provide ratepayer subsidies to nuclear power producers. Exelon says it is prematurely shutting down Unit 1 because it is losing money.

Exelon’s critics objected to the announcement, saying the choice to decommission the reactor site over the long term rather than pursue an accelerated decontamination schedule is an attempt to increase pressure on Pennsylvania policymakers to enact a proposed $500 million nuclear industry rescue and keep TMI open.

“This is a veiled extortion attempt,” said Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, a Harrisburg nuclear watchdog group.

Epstein feared that Exelon’s prolonged decommissioning schedule would delay the completion of cleanup of the damaged TMI Unit 2, which was permanently shut down in 1979 after America’s worst commercial nuclear accident. FirstEnergy Corp., which owns Unit 2, has said it plans to coordinate the final cleanup of its dormant reactor with Exelon’s decommissioning of Unit 1.

“Exelon is retreating from a timely cleanup of TMI-1, and this announcement means the damaged reactor — TMI-2 — will not be cleaned up until almost 100 years after the meltdown,” Epstein said.

Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesperson, said the timeline for the final cleanup of the damaged reactor needs to be sorted out in light of Exelon’s announcement.

Exelon said the Unit 1 decommissioning cost of $1.2 billion would be financed from a trust fund into which the power plant’s customers have paid since the plant went online in 1974. Exelon or its successors would be responsible for paying any fund shortfall.

The company said it was planning for the shutdown of the plant while also actively pursuing a legislative "solution” to the industry’s financial problems.

“Absent action in the coming months by Pennsylvania policymakers, the loss of nuclear plants will increase air pollution, compromise the resiliency of the electric grid, raise energy prices for consumers, eliminate thousands of good-paying local jobs and weaken the state’s economy,” Exelon said in a news release.

Under federal regulations, plant operators have 60 years to clean up a site after a plant closes. The long-term decommissioning method called SAFSTOR allows radioactive levels to decline for decades before workers have to dismantle contaminated components. It also allows time for underfinanced trust funds to accumulate more value, said Sheehan.

The advantage of the more rapid decontamination strategy is that it allows the owner to employ workers experienced with the plant. It also makes the site available for reuse sooner. “For the community, they get the site cleaned up much more quickly,” said Sheehan.

Exelon said that the 837-megawatt reactor, which employs nearly 700 people, would reduce the staffing level to 300 after shutdown. A skeleton workforce of 50 would remain in place after 2022 to secure the site and the 1,200 tons of spent fuel stored in special steel casks.

Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear energy producer, initially chose the long-term SAFSTOR method of decommissioning for its Oyster Creek Generating Station in New Jersey, which closed last year. But in July it announced it will transfer ownership to Holtec International, which plans to decommission the Ocean County site in eight years.

Exelon’s opponents in the contentious Pennsylvania legislative battle over a nuclear rescue on Friday complained that the company is profitable, but has successfully pressured Illinois, New York, and New Jersey to approve subsidies to keep unprofitable reactors afloat.

“Today’s announcement by Fortune 100 company Exelon is following the playbook they’ve used in other states to extract multimillion-dollar handouts that have led to skyrocketing electric bills for families, businesses, and school districts," said the Pennsylvania Energy Consumer Alliance, a trade group of large industrial and commercial electric customers.

Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts, a coalition of the natural gas industry and consumer groups such as AARP that are opposed to the nuclear rescue, on Friday said Exelon’s own statement made a strong case for discontinuing support to the industry.

“As stated in Exelon’s own news release, decommissioning TMI will take years and require hundreds of jobs," the organization said in a statement. "And the radioactive material they have generated will be stored on site through 2078 and beyond.”