Pennsylvania raises alarms on transfer of radioactive Three Mile Island reactor

  • Susan Phillips

Citing financial concerns and the COVID-19 emergency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has asked the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to delay a decision over a license transfer of the radioactive Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Dauphin County.

The reactor, which sits on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, experienced a partial meltdown in 1979, the worst nuclear accident in United States history.

In an April 6 letter to NRC chair Kristine Svinicki, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell detailed a number of issues, including a lack of funds to properly clean up the site, unknown levels of radiation that remain on site, how and where the remaining radioactive materials will be disposed of, and how the process could affect the health of the Susquehanna River.

“The TMI Unit 2 nuclear accident resulted in damage to the majority of the reactor core, released millions of curies of radioactive noble gases into the environs, and grossly contaminated the interiors of the containment and auxiliary buildings,” McDonnell wrote in the letter. “… Despite the limited entries into the containment building to remove damaged nuclear fuel in the 1980s, there are vast areas in the plant with unknown radiological conditions related to the TMI Unit 2 accident. I firmly believe TMI Unit 2 is the most radiologically contaminated facility in our nation outside of the Department of Energy’s weapons complex.”

GPU Nuclear (now a subsidiary of FirstEnergy), the company that operated the plant during the meltdown, plans to transfer its license to Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions, one of a few companies that purchase shuttered nuclear facilities to take over the decommissioning of the sites, with the goal of dismantling and disposing of radioactive materials cheaper and faster.

Each nuclear facility has a mandated trust fund — known as the Nuclear Decommissioning Trust Fund, or NDT, and financed with ratepayer dollars — to cover the costs of the decommissioning. Companies such as EnergySolutions and Holtec International, which bought the license of the shuttered Oyster Creek facility in New Jersey, hope to turn a profit by spending less than the dollars remaining in the trust fund to dispose of the radioactive waste.

Eric Epstein, chair of the anti-nuclear watchdog group TMI Alert, opposes the transfer and has petitioned the NRC for a hearing. Epstein argues that the transfer is an illegal taking of public funds.

“TMI-2 Solutions, an investment vehicle based in Delaware, wants to come in and clean the plant up, something that nobody’s been able to do in 41 years, and do it cheaper and faster than anybody else,” Epstein said. “… there’s over $1 billion in public money sitting in the decommissioning fund. And that’s what this is about, them coming in, taking the money, and then getting whatever is left over.”

Epstein said it’s an easy way for FirstEnergy to get the cleanup of the plant off its books. EnergySolutions has decommissioned a number of shuttered nuclear plants, including the Zion nuclear power plant in Illinois, the La Crosse plant in Wisconsin, the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska and the San Onofre plant in California.

Work done in the 1980s removed all the spent fuel at TMI Unit 2 and transferred it to a Department of Energy site in Idaho. The Three Mile Island site was decontaminated to the extent possible and sealed off. But some damaged fuel from the reactor vessel remains, as well as an unknown amount of radioactive material.

AmerGen, now Exelon, bought the neighboring TMI Unit 1 reactor in 1999, operating it until September, when Exelon shut it down. That plant will be put into what is called “SAFSTOR” status, in which the facility’s radiation is left to decay naturally over time, before the plant is dismantled.

GPU Nuclear continues to hold the license of TMI’s Unit 2. In October, EnergySolutions signed an agreement between FirstEnergy and its subsidiary GPU Nuclear. At the time, GPU Nuclear president Greg Halnon said the transfer to EnergySolutions freed FirstEnergy from its “decommissioning obligations.”

EnergySolutions created a joint venture with New Jersey-based construction company Jingoli to do the decommissioning of TMI-2, which they have named ES/Jingoli Decommissioning LLC. EnergySolutions also created a subsidiary known as TMI-2 Solutions.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission published a notice in the Federal Register of review of the transfer on March 26, setting a 30-day period for public comment.

In his letter to the NRC, McDonnell, the Pennsylvania DEP secretary, said the recent shuttering and planned decommissioning of TMI-1 was never meant to jump-start the decommissioning of the contaminated remains of TMI-2.

“With the announcement of GPU Nuclear Corporation planning to shed its responsibility for TMI Unit 2 to TMI-2 Solutions, we now understand that TMI-2 Solutions plans to immediately begin the decommissioning of TMI Unit 2 with the accrued $800 million in the financial assurance fund that GPU Nuclear Corporation and the NRC currently control,” McDonnell wrote.

DEP pointed out in the letter that cost estimates for the clean-up for TMI-2 are $1.2 billion, but said it could be more given the unknown status of the unit, which has remained inaccessible for 27 years.

In a report issued to the NRC by GPU Nuclear dated March 18, 2020, the trust fund is listed at approximately $899 million, while the estimated clean-up costs are $1,353,638,075.

Epstein, who directs TMI Alert, said costs could run significantly higher.

“This company doesn’t have the experience or wherewithal to clean the place up,” Epstein said. “Their plan is to speed up the decommissioning. It’s on an island in the middle of a river. The building itself is radioactive.”

It’s unclear how the company will close the gap in funding and still make a profit, or who would be responsible for the clean-up should the current trust fund not cover the full costs.

In a letter responding to the DEP’s concerns, GPU Nuclear’s Halnon said the decommissioning would cost just over $1 billion.

“Over time, even presuming a conservative 2% average estimate of fund growth above inflation, the current 2019 NDT can satisfy the roughly $1.05 billion decommissioning cost estimate,” he said.

But Epstein said the COVID-19 emergency and subsequent economic downturn changes the financing.

“They’re operating off old data from the ’80s and ’90s in terms of the technical side of the equation,” he said. “And they’re operating off old data from last year in terms of the financial situation. We don’t think the money’s there.”

In a brief filed with the NRC, DEP attorneys asked for more time to review the company’s plan to make sure Pennsylvania taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag if the funds do run out.

DEP Secretary McDonnell also raised questions in his letter about where the radioactive material would end up, including whether any of the low-level waste would be disposed of in Pennsylvania landfills.

“Equally important, we require firm legal assurances that financial resources are available to complete decommissioning once started, including bonding between the Commonwealth and licensee,” he wrote. “I also expect no radioactive waste from TMI Unit 2 will be left on Three Mile Island.”

GPU Nuclear responded that some of the material would go to EnergySolutions’ own facility in Clive, Utah, and some would go to a facility in Texas. Regarding Pennsylvania, the company said the DEP would have a say in whether radioactive material would end up in commonwealth landfills.

A spokesperson for FirstEnergy, GPU’s parent company, said the DEP’s questions are valid and will be addressed through the NRC regulatory review process.

“Transfer of TMI-2 to EnergySolutions ensures knowledgeable and experienced U.S. resources are secured to complete the decommissioning of the TMI-2,” FirstEnergy spokesperson Jennifer Young wrote in an email. “EnergySolutions is the only U.S. company that has completed commercial decommissioning projects in the U.S. in the past forty years, including projects in Zion, Illinois, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and LaCrosse, Wisconsin.”

EnergySolutions spokesperson Mark Walker also said the DEP’s concerns will be addressed through the process.

“Our top priority at TMI-2 will be to protect the health and safety of the public and the environment,” Walker said. “We will work closely with the community and regulatory agencies, including the PADEP, to ensure we address all of their questions and concerns.”

A spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that “staff reviewing the application will carefully consider any comments submitted.”

Comments are due April 27.

Correction: A previous version of this story said FirstEnergy recently emerged out of bankruptcy. That is incorrect, FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), a former subsidiary of FirstEnergy is the entity that declared bankruptcy. FirstEnergy Corp. and its subsidiaries, including GPU Nuclear, were not part of the Chapter 11 filing. 

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