PENNSYLVANIA'S #1 WEEKLY NEWSPAPER • locally owned since 1854

TMI closure: Exelon wants safety changes, including end to sirens, pills, evacuation zone

By Dan Miller

Posted 9/4/19

Like many others living near Three Mile Island, Diane Senseman of Elizabethtown comes in every year at about this time to get her free potassium iodide pills.

She did so again during the most …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

TMI closure: Exelon wants safety changes, including end to sirens, pills, evacuation zone


Like many others living near Three Mile Island, Diane Senseman of Elizabethtown comes in every year at about this time to get her free potassium iodide pills.

She did so again during the most recent giveaway of the pills Aug. 22 at the Londonderry Township building, even though Exelon will shut TMI down as of Sept. 30.

“I believe in precaution,” Senseman said of her annual trek to pick up the pills — also known as KI pills — which are supposed to protect the thyroid gland in case of a radioactive leak from TMI.

Picking up the pills each year is just one of the things Senseman has grown accustomed to that go with living near a nuclear power plant.

There are others, such as hearing the sirens go off when they are tested twice a year, and that slick pamphlet that comes in the mail from Exelon each year to remind everyone living within 10 miles of TMI what they are supposed to do in case of an emergency.

But that could all go away by early 2021, as part of Exelon’s planned shutdown of the Unit 1 reactor at TMI on Sept. 30.

A statement provided to the Press & Journal by Exelon spokesman David Marcheskie states that “as plant conditions change, the already low risk to public health and safety is reduced even further, and an emergency plan tailored to those conditions allows for more effective emergency management.”

Under requests Exelon has filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the company’s responsibility for emergency planning would not extend beyond the island itself.

Off-site emergency planning no longer would be necessary, because by about Jan. 30, 2021 — 488 days after the Sept. 30 shutdown — conditions on Three Mile Island will have changed to where a release of radiation into the atmosphere in excess of safety thresholds established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will no longer be considered “credible,” Exelon has said in documents the company filed with the NRC.

The shutdown, the company states, means Unit 1 no longer will be an operating nuclear reactor, but a non-operating plant in a “permanently defueled condition.”

That’s a significant difference, in terms of the danger the plant poses to the public off-site, Exelon says.

No evacuation zone

Proposed changes submitted by Exelon would eliminate all language pertaining to a 10-mile evacuation zone.

No evacuation zone or emergency planning requirements pertaining to such a zone would be necessary, because after Jan. 30, 2021, “any releases beyond the site boundary are limited to small fractions of the EPA PAG (Protective Action Guideline) exposure levels,” Exelon says.

Exelon no longer would be required to provide information to the public on a periodic basis, such as the annual mailings, on how residents are to be notified and what they should do in the event of an emergency at TMI.

Off-site radiation monitoring systems no longer would be required beyond January 2021 “due to the decreased risks associated with defueled plants,” Exelon says. Instead, off-site radiation monitoring would be performed “as the need arises.”

There were be no further need to test the public alert and notification system, such as the sirens, with respect to TMI, Exelon says. “The public alert and notification system will not be used, and no testing would be required.”

TMI Alert objects

The TMI watchdog group TMI Alert opposes the requests from Exelon for relief from the off-site emergency planning and preparedness requirements.

The group intends to file formal objections with the NRC to the requests as soon as that is possible, said Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert.

“There are a host of challenges with an idle reactor that necessitate full implementation of emergency planning protocols,” Epstein told the Press & Journal. “We’re supporting maintaining the status quo until high level radioactive waste is removed from the site. The company (Exelon) wants to retreat to the fence line and dissolve its commitment to emergency planning.”

Epstein said TMI Alert is also pursuing state legislation that would mandate Exelon and all other licensees of nuclear power plants to “fulfill their commitment to emergency planning until all spent fuel is removed from the site. That’s indefinite. Exelon is trying to walk away from its obligation.”

Exelon has assured the public that a leak of radiation harmful beyond the island is not possible after January 2021, but Epstein said that statement holds no water, given the track record of what occurred during the defueling of TMI Unit 2 following the accident in March 1979.

He provided the Press & Journal with an email detailing about 10 accidents and incidents at Unit 2 from 1980 through 2003.

“There is still a chance of serious accident, whether through natural hazards, spent fuel fires or security breaches. Those challenges remain until the spent fuel is removed,” Epstein said. “Until high-level radioactive waste is removed from the island, emergency planning should remain in place as if the plant is operating.”

Exelon has never owned Unit 2. Unit 2 was owned at the time of the 1979 accident by GPU Nuclear, which still owns Unit 2 today as a subsidiary of FirstEnergy.

EnergySolutions Inc. of  North Carolina, in July announced plans to acquire Unit 2 from FirstEnergy and to complete decommissioning and dismantling of the reactor that was shut down as a result of the 1979 accident.

However, the emergency plan now in place at Three Mile Island encompasses both Unit 1 and Unit 2, Exelon said in the documents submitted to the NRC. Exelon maintains the emergency planning responsibilities for Unit 2 through a service agreement.

Exelon’s request for exemptions from the current off-site emergency planning and preparedness requirements “does not impact Exelon’s ability to maintain the service agreement” pertaining to Unit 2, Exelon told the NRC.

Moving spent fuel

The transition to a permanently defueled condition doesn’t occur merely with the flip of a switch Sept. 30.

At about that time, used fuel is to be transferred from the Unit 1 reactor to a spent fuel pool, according to the decommissioning plan that Exelon has filed separately with the NRC.

About 488 days after shutdown of the reactor, the spent fuel stored in the spent fuel pool will have decayed to the point where the off-site emergency planning requirements are no longer necessary, Exelon says in the documents it has filed with the NRC seeking approval for the changes.

Sometime in 2022, fuel is to be moved from the spent fuel pool to a dry cask storage facility that is to be built at TMI, according to Exelon’s decommissioning plan.

Exelon in its request said that the changes it seeks regarding being exempt from off-site emergency planning requirements “are consistent” with changes that the NRC has approved for other “nuclear power reactor facilities beginning decommissioning.”

As examples, Exelon said that the NRC approved similar changes regarding the Unit 1 reactor of the Fort Calhoun Station nuclear plant on Dec. 12, 2017; for the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station on Dec. 11, 2015; for Units 1, 2 and 3 of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in southern California on June 5, 2015; for Unit 3 of the Crystal River Nuclear Generating Station in Florida on March 31, 2015; and for the Kewaunee Power Station near Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Oct. 31, 2014.

The NRC also approved similar changes to the emergency plan and the “associated EAL (Emergency Action Level)” for the Zion Nuclear Power Station northwest of Chicago, Exelon said.

“Changing the emergency plan after shutdown is a common industry practice and allows the site to reduce staffing, in accordance with NRC guidelines,” Exelon said in the statement. “Three Mile Island Unit 1 has a long history of supporting its first responders and emergency management agencies. As the station transitions from an operating to a decommissioning facility, the need for off-site emergency management is reduced.”

Too early for public comment

It is still early in the process by which the NRC is to consider the requests that have been submitted by Exelon.

Exelon has submitted two sets of documents to the NRC that pertain to no longer having to meet off-site emergency planning and preparedness requirements.

As soon as the NRC has determined that the submissions from Exelon are complete, both documents will be published in the Federal Register, the official journal that the federal government uses to make the public aware of government agency rules, proposed rules, and public notices.

At that point, people will have the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes sought by Exelon in the license amendment request, during a public comment period that will be specified in the Federal Register, said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.

The NRC could also choose to hold a public meeting or hearing regarding the license amendment request; that has yet to be determined.

“A group or entity with standing would have to request a public hearing and the NRC would have to decide whether to grant that request,” Sheehan said.

KI pills

One more note about those free KI pills — Exelon is not responsible for providing them now.

The NRC provides the pills to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, department spokesman Nate Wardle told the Press & Journal.

The department distributes the pills to residents who live and work within 10 miles of the five nuclear power plants, including TMI.

The department is working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the NRC to determine plans for distribution after TMI shuts down, he said.