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NRC Weighing Plan To Evaporate Radioactive Three Mile Island Water

April 16, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began weighing on Thursday a controversial plan by the operator of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to evaporate 2.1 million gallons of radioactive water into the atmosphere.

Some of the water is left over from the nation’s worst commercial nuclear accident at the Pennsylvania plant’s Unit 2 reactor in 1979, while some has been used to decontaminate plant equipment.

The five NRC commissioners, in their first public meeting considering the proposal, said they would not make a judgment until publication of an environmental impact statement on the plan by the NRC staff.

A draft of the impact statement last December concluded that evaporation was one of a number of options for safely getting rid of the water. Publication of a final document has been witheld by the commission while public comment is solicited.

Two public meetings conducted in recent months by a Pennsylvania citizens’ panel monitoring the $1 billion plant cleanup have produced criticism of the proposal.

″At both these meetings, virtually all public comment was in opposition to the proposed evaporation plan put forth by the operator,″ said a letter to NRC Chairman Lando Zech from Arthur Morris, the mayor of Lancaster, Pa.

″Continued storage in the holding tanks on the island was the preferred option put forth by most citizens,″ Morris said in the letter, released Thursday. The plant sits on an island in the Susquehanna River.

Under the proposal by GPU Nuclear Corp., the water would be boiled and steam released into the atmosphere. The process would take more than two years and cost between $6 million and $12 million.

GPU Nuclear said the average additional radiation exposure to the public would be about 0.01 millirem, about the same as the exposure from one hour of natural background radiation in the area near the plant. The water contains tritium, cesium 137 and strontium 90.

Leaving the water in storage tanks at the plant is the ″lease desirable″ option, said NRC Commissioner Frederick Bernthal.

″Tanks do leak, after all, so in my judgment we have to remove them one way or another,″ Bernthal said.

Thomas Gerusky, a member of the Pennsylvania citizens’ panel and director of the state’s Bureau of Radiation Protection, agreed that ″we shouldn’t leave the water on the island in any form.

″We should not make the island a low-level radiation site,″ he said. ″The attitude I see is that people want to get this over as quickly and as safely as possible and forget about TMI-2.″

Another option advanced by several members of the citizens’ panel calls for the water to be solidified, perhaps by mixing with cement, and then shipped to a low-level waste facility. But that could cost as much as $41 million, according to William Travers of the NRC.

During the accident, uranium fuel was allowed to lose the vital cooling water that normally covers it, causing material in the core to begin melting. The ongoing cleanup, which plant officials hoped to complete by the end of 1988, has focused largely on removing damaged fuel and debris from the reactor vessel and reducing radiation levels inside.

The damaged fuel has blocked researchers from getting a picture of the bottom of the vessel to determine how close the accident came to breaching the lower wall.

The reactor’s twin, Unit 1, was not harmed in the accident and resumed operating in 1985.

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