Monday, March 29, 1999

Three Mile Island waste to leave INEEL

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Remnants of the failed nuclear reactor from Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island disaster soon will leave the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

The accident on March 28, 1979, forever changed Americans' attitudes about nuclear power. Idaho is still dealing with the waste from Three Mile Island, which arrived at the INEEL in the late 1980s.

Remnants of the reactor, including radioactive fuel rods and core debris, should begin leaving the site Tuesday.

The Energy Department faces a March 31 deadline to begin moving the Three Mile Island fuel from concrete-lined pools into dry storage. The deadline is part of the nuclear waste settlement agreement signed between the U.S. Department of Energy, Navy and state of Idaho in 1995.

"At this point I'm pretty confident we'll make the milestone," said Al Hoskins, spent nuclear fuel program manager for Lockheed Martin Idaho. "There's no showstoppers, but it is tight."

The Energy Department received a license 10 days ago from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to transport the fuel and operate a new dry storage system.

The INEEL originally was chosen to house the materials because of its long history in designing and testing nuclear reactors. INEEL scientists helped reconstruct what happened in the reactor core by looking at the damaged fuel, Hoskins said.

"From a research perspective, understanding the nature of that accident thoroughly is important to our mission," he said. "It was an opportunity to examine the fuel to find out how to prevent it from happening again."

That research work ended earlier in this decade. Steel containers filled with radioactive fuel and debris from Three Mile Island have been sitting in pools at the INEEL's Test Area North ever since.

The fuel, which is stored in 10-foot-long tubes, will be inserted into a steel storage canister that slides into steel transportation cask and loaded onto a truck destined for a 120-ton concrete storage container at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center.

The agency expects to make 29 shipments of Three Mile Island fuel over the next two years. All the fuel must be in dry storage by June 2001.

Kathleen Trever, director of Idaho's INEEL oversight committee, said the state is satisfied now that the first shipment seems to be on track.

But it was pure coincidence that the first shipment deadline happened to fall just three days after the accident's anniversary.

"It's an ironic twist," she said. "The fates either smiled or joked."