Where will the nuclear waste go after Three Mile Island shuts down? via The Inquirer

by Andrew Maykuth

After the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident 40 years ago, most of the reactor’s partially melted uranium fuel was hauled away to the Idaho National Lab, where the radioactive waste now slowly decays in steel and concrete containers, awaiting long-term disposal.

But the formal decommissioning of the damaged Unit 2 reactor near Harrisburg, site of America’s worst commercial nuclear disaster, has not yet really begun. Its owner, FirstEnergy Corp., has said that the plant would remain dormant until the surviving reactor, owned by a different company, shuts down.

FirstEnergy, in a 2013 filing with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that both reactors would be decommissioned simultaneously “to achieve economies of scale, by sharing costs between the units, and coordinating the sequence of work activities.”

The timing of the final dismantlement and interment of Three Mile Island plant was thrown into uncertainty last week when the owner of the operating reactor, Exelon Generation, announced that it would take nearly 60 years to decommission its unit if it prematurely shut down operations in September. Exelon says it is losing money on the plant and has no option but to shut it down without a state rescue.

The prolonged decommissioning of the operational reactor — and by implication, the damaged reactor — could push back the final cleanup and remediation of Three Mile Island to 2079, a century after the meltdown.


The Unit 2 decommissioning costs, which FirstEnergy last year estimated at $1.26 billion, would be paid out of a trust fund. (Exelon estimates its reactor, TMI Unit 1, would need an additional $1.2 billion to decommission, paid from a separate trust fund.)


By decommissioning both reactors simultaneously, FirstEnergy said, it can use Exelon’s fuel storage equipment to contain the “small quantities of core debris and fission products” that still remain from Unit 2′s partial meltdown, which occurred after a series of mechanical and human errors led to a loss of coolant, allowing the uranium fuel to overheat.


The government had planned and designed a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., to store spent fuel, which includes some isotopes that remain lethally radioactive for tens of thousands of years. The Obama administration abandoned the plan in 2009. The Trump administration last year requested Congress fund efforts to renew licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain site.


Until the issue is sorted out, most decommissioned U.S. reactors will be forced to keep their spent fuel in canisters on the former reactor sites.

But 99 percent of the fuel from Three Mile Island’s damaged reactor was already packed up and shipped to the Idaho National Laboratory after the TMI accident.

The U.S. Department of Energy stores 2,750 tons of nuclear waste at four sites in South Carolina, Washington, Colorado and Idaho from an assortment of commercial, naval, and weapons-related reactors.


The 90.8 tons of ruined nuclear fuel from Three Mile Island’s damaged reactor is the biggest contributor of waste to the Idaho site. It is contained in 29 steel canisters encased in concrete containers.

But it is an unwelcome long-term resident in Idaho.

Under a 1995 agreement between the state of Idaho and the federal government, the energy department agreed to remove all spent fuel from the state by Jan. 1, 2035.

The agreement specifically includes Three Mile Island’s waste.

Read more at Where will the nuclear waste go after Three Mile Island shuts down?

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