Exelon plans to use ratepayer money set aside to dismantle Three Mile Island to manage radioactive spent fuel, forgoing costs the corporation that reports annual revenue of $34 billion would ordinarily need to put up itself.
The decision, quietly approved last year by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, speaks to a larger predicament: No one knows what to do with America’s more than 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. The cost of that indecision has been and will continue to be shouldered by the public.
And the problem is exacerbated by an industry-wide downturn that led Exelon to shutter Unit 1 last year. More utilities are closing their nuclear reactors, leaving hazardous radioactive material scattered across the country for decades to come.
In making its case for tapping into the decommissioning trust fund, which utility customers contributed to for years via fees overseen by the state Public Utility Commission, Exelon argued that fuel storage is a necessary part of taking Unit 1 offline.
Critics, however, say Exelon should’ve begun this process long ago. Even if the plant were still operating, limited space in its cooling pool — literally a tank full of water that houses spent fuel — meant that it would’ve had to begin construction of a dry cask storage system soon, according to NRC documents. The pool was projected to run out of space in 2023.
Furthermore, Exelon received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from the U.S. Department of Energy for fuel storage as part of a 2004 legal settlement over the federal government’s failure to establish a permanent nuclear waste repository.
Exelon spokesman David Marcheskie said the company plans to seek reimbursement for fuel storage first from the DOE, a process he said could take roughly two years, before tapping into the facility’s decommissioning fund. The NRC gave the company permission to use the fund without advance notice.
To date, Marcheskie said TMI received $10 million in DOE payouts.
The specifics of those payments, which Exelon itself mentioned as a source of funding in an April 2019 NRC filing, are highly secretive. Marcheskie and other Exelon spokespeople did not respond to questions about DOE payouts across the company’s 22 nuclear reactors nationwide. As of 2011, that figure was at least $460 million, although reliable figures are hard to come by. The original settlement was open-ended, meaning that payouts continue — perhaps indefinitely — as long as the country goes without a centralized nuclear waste site.
“The industry is getting money for nothing,” said Eric Epstein, an activist who’s followed Three Mile Island’s legacy for four decades. “They’re raiding the decommissioning fund for storage that should’ve been built decades ago.”
And tapping into the decommissioning trust fund raises yet another irksome question: Is there enough money set aside to properly dismantle Three Mile Island?
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