A difference of opinion on TMI changes


Critic says generators should have been replaced years ago; spokesman for owner says plant was safe, relicensing sought.

Sunday News


Sep 06, 2009 


By JON RUTTER, Lancaster Sunday News Staff Writer


Three Mile Island is replacing its two steam generators two decades late, contends nuclear industry critic Eric Epstein.

Lots of people are waiting to glimpse the ponderous new machines.

The generators will be slowly piggybacked through the county this month on their way from Port Deposit, Md., to the atomic power plant at Middletown.



However, said Epstein, chairman of the 32-year-old Three Mile Island Alert watchdog group, "nobody's paid attention to why" they're needed in the first place.


The current generators were damaged by a sulfur compound the plant's former owner introduced in the early 1980s, he said.


Some of the metal generating tubes were weakened and subsequently repaired with sleeves or "plugged," which means they were taken out of operation.


"We would have preferred if the generators had been replaced 20 years ago," Epstein said.


But that wasn't necessary, says Ralph DeSantis, spokesman for Exelon, the present owner of TMI Unit 1.


The damage did not compromise safety or impair the function of the machines, which have a total of 31,000 tubes, DeSantis said.


According to documents furnished by TMI and forwarded by Epstein, one of the old generators was 10.9 percent plugged while the other was 5.9 percent plugged.


TMI is 35 years old, DeSantis noted, and most of the plant's other major components have already been updated.


The old generators are at the end of their useful life, he added.


Classified as low-level radioactive waste, they will be stored at TMI in a "specially designed building" until the plant is decommissioned, DeSantis said.


The $300 million generator replacement project is part of a larger overhaul that will entail hiring 3,000 workers and temporarily closing TMI this fall while the reactor is refueled and the new equipment installed, DeSantis added.


The work is being done in anticipation of relicensing by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which DeSantis said could come as early as the end of this year and extend TMI's lifespan until 2034.


All of which exacerbates the problem of what to do with growing stockpiles of nuclear waste, in Epstein's view.


"The old plants are the new reactors," he said, dismissing reports of a nuclear energy resurgence. "The island is going to host radioactive waste well into the next century."


Jon Rutter is a staff writer for the Sunday News. His e-mail address is jrutter@lnpnews.com.