March 13, 2009 / 11:07 PM / 10 years ago

Three Mile Island nuclear inches toward re-licensing

LOS ANGELES, March 13 (Reuters) - The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday issued a draft safety report for the remaining working nuclear power reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, inching the facility closer to permission to operate until 2034.

The NRC reported no major safety flaws in the draft report, which is a step on the way to what is expected to be a 20-year renewal of Three Mile Island Unit 1’s operating license in November 2009. A 40-year operating license now in effect expires in 2014.

Three Mile Island is owned by Exelon (EXC.N), the biggest operator of nuclear reactors in the United States. Nuclear power accounts for 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

The sister unit at Three Mile Island, near the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg, created worldwide headlines in 1979 when it partially melted down in the worst U.S. nuclear power accident.

The accident made Three Mile Island synonymous with the dangers of nuclear power and helped stop expansion of the U.S. nuclear industry.

The 30th anniversary of the accident is March 28. Three Mile Island 2 did not reopen and was only in operation for three months.

Exelon was not owner of Three Mile Island when the accident occurred.

The 786-megawatt Unit 1 came online in 1974. It was in refueling when the accident at Unit 2 occurred. Unit 1 was shut down as a precaution until 1985.

Unit 1 makes enough electricity to serve about 650,000 households.

Exelon will respond to any concerns raised in the safety report by the NRC, said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.

The final safety evaluation report is planned to be released in mid-July.

Relicensing of nuclear plants requires review of safety as well as environmental issues. An environmental impact report is also to be issued in mid-July.

The NRC uses the license renewal process to determine how an operator will manage the aging of a reactor.

Sheehan of the NRC said the agency is mainly concerned that the operators replace worn parts of the plant if they are unsafe.

There are 104 operating U.S. nuclear reactors, and the NRC has approved 51 of them for 20-year license extensions. None of the license renewal applications have been refused, but two were turned back for more work, Sheehan said.

The NRC’s review is rigorous, Sheehan said, and its work is reviewed by an independent panel of scientists, engineers and academics. Such a panel will meet April 1 concerning Three Mile Island 1.

No licenses for new nuclear reactors have been issued since the accident, but the NRC and nuclear industry players say the first new nuclear reactor in decades will come online between between 2015 and 2018.

Since 2007, the NRC has received applications for 17 new nuclear reactor operating licenses covering 28 new reactors. It expects to get a total of 22 applications for 33 new reactors by end-2010.

To read more on the NRC review of the license application, see here and here. (Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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