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Demolition Of Two TMI Cooling Towers Postponed Until Next Year

Exelon's Three Mile Island plant is scheduled to prematurely close in September 2019. The company has been lobbying for help from the state to keep it open.
Courtesy Exelon
Exelon's Three Mile Island plant is scheduled to prematurely close in September 2019. The company has been lobbying for help from the state to keep it open.

The company responsible for decommissioning the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant is delaying demolition of the reactor’s two cooling towers, the project director said Wednesday.

Frank Helin told the TMI-2 Community Advisory Panel that the towers will come down in 2022 instead of this fall.

The decommissioner, TMI-2 Solutions, is a subsidiary of EnergySolutions, a Utah-based company that tries to turn a profit by dismantling inactive nuclear sites under budget. TMI-2 Solutions acquired the reactor’s license from FirstEnergy in December.

The company plans to start removing what remains of TMI-2’s damaged core by mid-2022. It expects to complete the entire clean-up process by 2037.

EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said the delay in taking down the cooling towers does not affect the rest of the process.

“During the planning process of TMI-2 decommissioning we determined there would be less impact to other decommissioning activities taking place on the island later this year,” he said in a statement.

That includes the transfer of spent fuel from TMI-1, the plant’s other reactor, out of underwater storage and into dry containers.

TMI-1, owned by Exelon, closed permanently in 2019.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said the cooling tower demolition does not present a safety risk.

Eric Epstein, chair of the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, said that while he is not concerned about the cooling towers, he believes the reactor building may have more radioactive material than the company is prepared to deal with.

“Our concern is making sure that the plant is finally cleaned up 42 years later,” he said. “We don’t believe the company that owns TMI-2 has the technology, the expertise, or the resources to clean the plant up.”

On its website, TMI-2 Solutions says it anticipates the project will cost $1.06 billion. It says the trust fund dedicated to the reactor’s decommissioning contains about $877 million, but that fund growth over time will provide enough money to cover the costs.

A 2020 report from GPU Nuclear, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy, stated that the fund contained about $899 million, and that a 2018 site assessment had estimated the cleanup cost at $1.35 billion.

In a 2020 petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission opposing the license transfer from FirstEnergy to TMI-2 Solutions, TMI Alert contended that the company failed to adequately survey the site for contamination and that the trust fund will not grow fast enough to cover the expanded price tag.

The NRC denied TMI Alert’s request for a hearing.

The DEP had also expressed concern about the company’s ability to pay for the project, but the agency withdrew its objection last August.

Helin said Wednesday that TMI-2 Solutions plans to continue assessing the level of radioactivity in the reactor building, including using robots to take samples of concrete walls in the building’s basement.

The reactor has been dormant since 1979, when it partially melted down during the most serious accident at a commercial nuclear plant in U.S. history.

Demolishing the TMI-2 cooling towers will mark the beginning of the end for a fixture of the central Pennsylvania landscape.

“As a kid, even, I went on hikes up at Rocky Ridge Park here in York County,” said Shen Kreiser, a nuclear planner in the county and a member of the Community Advisory Panel. At the top, she recalled, you get a clear view of the nuclear plant.

“You know it’s Three Mile Island because of the cooling towers,” she said.

The decommissioning company said the plant’s history figures into its plans, noting Wednesday that it aims to set aside pieces of the control room and other artifacts for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office as the project continues.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.