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Will TMI be allowed to reduce emergency planning?

By Dan Miller

Posted 1/8/20

A decision is expected by Jan. 23 on a request from watchdog group TMI Alert that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hold a hearing on a request from Three Mile Island Unit 1 owner Exelon to scale …

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Will TMI be allowed to reduce emergency planning?


A decision is expected by Jan. 23 on a request from watchdog group TMI Alert that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hold a hearing on a request from Three Mile Island Unit 1 owner Exelon to scale back emergency planning starting in early 2021.

TMI Alert opposes the request, in which Exelon proposes eliminating current emergency planning requirements that extend beyond the boundaries of TMI itself.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also weighed in, proposing in a Dec. 20 letter to the NRC that current emergency planning requirements remain until all spent nuclear fuel on TMI is placed into dry cask storage.

That transfer isn’t expected to take place until December 2022, according to the decommissioning timetable set by Exelon. That would be nearly two years after Exelon proposes to relax emergency planning requirements.

FEMA in its letter also questions “the belief” expressed by NRC staff that state and local governments no longer involved in formal radiological emergency planning would nevertheless “respond expeditiously and with optimum effectiveness” in case of an actual radiological emergency at Three Mile Island.

“FEMA has no data that would indicate what state and local government reactions might be in such circumstances,” FEMA said in the letter from Michael S. Casey, director of the agency’s Technological Hazards Division.

Exelon in documents submitted to the NRC has said these off-site requirements no longer will be necessary as of about Jan. 30, 2021, after Exelon shut down the Unit 1 reactor at TMI in September 2019.

By about Jan. 30, 2021 — roughly 488 days post-shutdown — conditions on TMI 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,” according to Exelon.

What it would mean

Relaxing the requirements as Exelon seeks would eliminate company responsibility for maintaining the 10-mile evacuation zone surrounding TMI, which is located in Londonderry Township.

For example, there would no longer be any testing or maintaining of the 96 sirens located within the evacuation zone in Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties, as this would no longer be necessary, Exelon says.

Exelon would also no longer be sending out mailings to people living within the 10-mile zone telling them what they are to do in case of an emergency on the island.

The Exelon request does not address whether free potassium iodide or “KI” pills will still be given out each year to residents who live and work within the 10-mile evacuation zone.

Exelon is not responsible for the pills. The NRC provides the pills to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which distributes them to residents.

The health department is working with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the NRC to determine plans for distributing the pills following the Unit 1 shut down, health department spokesman Nate Wardle told the Press & Journal in September.

How the money breaks down

Exelon in its filing with the NRC has tied its request to saving money, saying that having to continue paying for off-site emergency planning measures beyond January 2021 would “result in an undue hardship” to the trust fund that the company must use to pay for decommissioning Unit 1.

NRC granting the request would lead to a reduction in the $425,000 that Exelon each year now gives the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to support emergency preparedness and training directly tied to TMI. How much of a decrease is not known at this point.

PEMA distributes a percentage of that $425,000 each year to counties and municipalities that would be affected by an emergency at TMI, through grants to enhance their capabilities via planning, training and exercises, PEMA spokesman L. Paul Vezzetti has told the Press & Journal.

If the 10-mile evacuation zone is eliminated the state would “curtail its training exercises related to TMI,” according to Vezzetti. “That would translate to fewer costs, and PEMA would then negotiate with Exelon to determine an appropriate level of funding based on any remaining threats during the decommissioning process.”

Exelon submitted its request to the NRC, known as a license amendment request, on July 1, 2019. Exelon requests NRC act to approve the proposed changes by Aug. 30, 2020.

TMI Alert’s request for a hearing before the NRC on the changes in emergency planning requirements sought by Exelon is before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, a three-judge panel that decides on hearing requests before the NRC, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told the Press & Journal.

‘Endangers communities’

TMI Alert in its written objections to the Exelon request filed with the NRC says the changes sought by Exelon “endangers the communities living around TMI.”

“Exelon is proposing to retreat to the fence line, and abandoning and defunding the communities they will need to partner with to implement” TMI emergency plans, TMI Alert says in the objections filed by the group’s chairman, Eric J. Epstein. “In short, Exelon would like to return Three Mile Island to the pre-1979 era where emergency planning was little more than an afterthought stored in a drawer.”

Epstein in a phone interview Monday told the Press & Journal that the NRC should allow no change in emergency planning requirements until all nuclear fuel is gone from TMI, and until both Unit 1 and Unit 2 reactors are fully decommissioned.

Unit 2 is the reactor that was permanently shut down following the March 1979 accident at TMI.

Exelon does not own Unit 2. However, TMI Alert in its objections contends that NRC granting the company’s request to revise emergency planning requirements would adversely impact the agreement Exelon has with Unit 2 owner FirstEnergy, in which Exelon is responsible for emergency planning for Unit 2.

Exelon rejects this in its response to the TMI Alert objections, saying the changes sought would “not impact” Exelon’s ability to maintain the agreement between itself and FirstEnergy regarding emergency planning for Unit 2.

Exelon also rejects TMI Alert’s contention that the trust fund won’t have enough money to cover decommissioning Unit 1.

Who would cover cost?

Epstein in the phone interview contended the changes sought by Exelon, coupled with the “unique status” of Unit 2 referred to in the group’s written comments, would lead to Pennsylvania taxpayers having to cover the cost of an emergency at TMI.

“There’s going to be a massive cost shift to local, state and federal governments. This is a unilateral defunding of emergency planning” sought by Exelon, Epstein said.

Exelon in its response notes that the NRC on Oct. 16, 2019, approved a request allowing Exelon to use money from the decommissioning trust fund to cover spent fuel management activities, such as construction of a dry cask storage facility on TMI. The NRC also approved Exelon’s request that Exelon be permitted to make these withdrawals from the trust fund without having to notify the NRC ahead of time.

Exelon says TMI Alert’s assertions regarding inadequacy of the trust fund are “groundless” and that, in any event, questions involving the trust fund are beyond the scope of the issue before the NRC — whether to allow for relaxing the existing emergency planning requirements.

Exelon urges the NRC to reject the hearing request and the objections from TMI Alert, contending that the group has “not established standing to intervene” in the company’s request to change emergency planning requirements.

Exelon has also said its request to revise emergency planning requirements is consistent with requests the NRC has granted concerning other nuclear reactors in the United States that are beginning decommissioning.

Besides objecting to the Exelon request, TMI Alert has proposed state legislation that would mandate annual payments by Exelon and other licensees of nuclear plants in Pennsylvania to cover spent fuel monitoring and emergency planning at least until all spent fuel has been moved into dry cask storage.

Afterward, licensees would have to keep making annual payments to state and county governments to support emergency planning, at a reduced level, until all spent nuclear fuel is removed from the site, under the proposed legislation. Decommissioning trust fund money could not be used to make these payments.