Is Three Mile Island a Good Neighbor?

 

By Ad Crable, Lancater New Era 

 

The irony is that 30 years after the most infamous U.S. accident since the splitting of the atom, there is talk of a nuclear-power revival, driven by greenhouse-gas concerns.

 

A separate reality is that three decades after the iconic partial-meltdown at Three Mile Island, the nuclear plant's surviving Unit 1 reactor is almost assured of soon receiving government permission to continue operating through 2034.

 

Is that a good thing?

 

 

Yes, says Ralph DeSantis, spokesman for TMI's current owner, Exelon. "We pride ourselves on being a good neighbor."

 

No, says Eric Epstein of Three Mile Island Alert, a longtime critic of TMI

 

Epstein is most concerned about highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that is stored in a swimming-pool-like structure on the island because the federal government has been unable to deliver on its promise to develop a central waste-storage site for the country's reactors.

 

"We never signed up to host a high-level nuclear radioactive waste site," complains Epstein. TMI is in southern Dauphin County, about 20 miles from downtown Lancaster.

 

Yes and no, says Arthur E. Morris, a former Lancaster mayor who for 14 years headed a government-created citizens' panel to guide cleanup at TMI after the accident.

 

Morris does not consider continuation of a local nuclear plant a bad thing. But he continues to be concerned that not enough money is being set aside to properly close both TMI units when the time comes.

 

That funding gap and the ongoing failure to solve the nuclear waste disposal issue "are like a ticking time bomb that needs to be dealt with," Morris says.

 

"Storage on-site means it's got to be properly protected and secured. There's just too many weaknesses with that. It seems we constantly take the easy way out here."

 

Currently there are 580 tons of spent fuel being warehoused at TMI. There is enough capacity to continue storing spent fuel until the year 2024, by which time Exelon hopes a national repository will be in operation. If not, waste might be stored in above-ground bunkers.

 

In an agreement with TMI Alert, in exchange for the group's promise not to oppose relicensing, Exelon promised it would not store other plants' waste.

 

Certainly many wounds have healed and memories have faded since March 28, 1979, when shortly before sunrise a combination of equipment malfunctions and operator error resulted in more than half of Unit 2's reactor core melting.

 

Tens of thousands of residents in the area fled, fearing radiation fallout. More than 2,000 later sued, including 100 Lancaster County families, charging the accident caused serious health injuries or lingering anxiety. The cases were eventually thrown out of court.

 

Seventeen Lancaster County businesses dropped lawsuits seeking compensation for lost business due to the accident.

 

Government studies and most follow-up research concluded that escaping radiation was small and did not harm the public, but some scientists still debate that.

 

Regardless, the political fallout was immediate and far-reaching: Not a single commercial nuclear plant has been built in the United States since then.

 

Now, the merits and risks of nuclear power are being re-evaluated.

 

Some, including environmentalists, are leaning toward increased nuclear power as a better alternative to fossil fuels. Nuclear generation does not produce carbon dioxide and other emissions that contribute to global warming.

 

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, marking the 30th anniversary of the accident, noted that since then the massive overhaul of regulations, mandated equipment improvements and emergency preparedness have made nuclear plants "operate safer and better today."

 

One of the accident's legacies is that the NRC and nuclear industry "recognized human performance as a critical component of plant safety."

 

While Unit 2, the site of the 1979 accident, continues to be mothballed, the surviving Unit 1 reactor at TMI has gone on to record a sterling performance record, four times setting world records for continuous days of operation.

 

"What that means is the equipment at the plant is being maintained to very high standards and the people running the plant are doing it at very high standards," says DeSantis.

 

DeSantis says that commitment to excellence is why TMI deserves to continue being a neighbor to central Pennsylvania for another 25 years. But the lessons of what happened on the island in the Susquehanna will never be forgotten, he says.

 

"If people want to know what the accident means to the people who work here, we are very much aware of the legacy of the accident. And people come here to work everyday with the intent to ensure that that will never happen again."

 

The NRC is set to rule on Exelon's license extension in November. License extensions have been granted to all 51 reactors that have applied in recent years and 19 more are under consideration, including TMI Unit 1. The nuclear industry has said that all 104 reactors in the U.S. will likely seek to continue on beyond their initial licenses.

 

The central question is whether the infrastructure and tens of thousands of components in an aging plant can be monitored and updated and run safely.

A team of 20 Exelon engineers spent two years showing the NRC how it would conduct "aging management" and keep tabs on everything from corrosion to concrete degradation to electrical junction boxes.

 

In a 668-page safety evaluation report on March 13, the NRC gave preliminary approval to TMI's plan.

 

Planned updates to the plant include replacing both steam generators at a cost of $280 million and switching to a digital system of control rods that control the nuclear reaction process.

 

"Even though the plant is 35 years old, it's really not 35 years old," says DeSantis. "We've replaced a lot of the components in the plant."

 

Epstein commends the work force at TMI in the years following the accident, which occurred when the plant was owned by Metropolitan Edison Co. But he says those "battle-tested" employees are retiring. "Now we see arrogance — 'We know best' and 'Get out of our way and let us do our job,'" says Epstein.

 

He's also critical that the work force at TMI has been decreased from 804 in 1998 to 525 now. Some 34 percent of those employees live in Lancaster County.

 

"We should be increasing employees, not decreasing them as the plant ages," Epstein says.

 

As part of its settlement with TMI Alert in the relicensing matter, Exelon promised to increase contributions to local charities and nonprofits. In 2008, Exelon and its employees at TMI contributed $360,000 to community groups.

 

Security at TMI became an issue about a year ago when security guards at TMI and Peach Bottom were found "inattentive" while on duty. Exelon fired its security company and now has in-house security.

 

Epstein would like to see a security force run by the military guarding TMI and other nuclear plants, similar to those who guard federal weapons installations.

 

But DeSantis says TMI is safely guarded against a terrorist attack, and noted that Exelon has spent more than $17 million on physical security upgrades at TMI since Sept. 11, 2001.