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Project delays plague company seeking to buy Kewaunee nuclear plant

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The company seeking to buy the shuttered Kewaunee Power Station is facing new delays on decommissioning of nuclear power plants in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission this month gave EnergySolutions until fall of 2022 to finish cleanup projects that were initially expected to be completed years ago.

The Utah-based company, which specializes in nuclear waste disposal, is seeking approval to buy the Kewaunee Power Station on Lake Michigan from Dominion Energy in order to decommission the plant, which was shut down in 2013.

If the sale is approved by Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, EnergySolutions would assume ownership of the plant and about $780 million set aside to cover decommissioning, which it estimates will cost nearly $724 million.

But a competitor, NorthStar Group Services of New York, says it could do the job for $550 million, returning more than $200 million to Wisconsin ratepayers.

NorthStar CEO Scott State said the delays could end up costing millions of dollars and cast doubt on EnergySolution’s ability to do the Kewaunee job on time and efficiently.

“It’s all kind of mystifying,” Scott said.

Neither company has completed decommissioning of a commercial nuclear plant, though NorthStar has successfully decommissioned five research reactors.

In a filing with the PSC, EnergySolutions said that claim “cannot be taken seriously,” and accused NorthStar of attempting to “hijack this proceeding with a business proposition and a misinformation campaign designed to garner headlines and divert the Commission’s attention.”

In a statement, chief operating officer Jeff Richardson said EnergySolutions is committed to returning any unused funds and the arrangement “mutually benefits the citizens of Wisconsin, Dominion Energy, and the larger nuclear industry.”

Mounting costs

EnergySolutions took over the license for the Zion Nuclear Power Station in northern Illinois to begin decommissioning work in 2010.

With the site cleared in 2019, EnergySolutions began the process of returning the license to the plant’s owner, Exelon Generation, and later applied for and received two six-month extensions.

But last month EnergySolutions requested another year to complete the transfer after the NRC sent a 38-page letter seeking additional information about unexplained radioactive contamination at the site.

The cleanup has cost at least $658 million so far, leaving just $5.3 million in the decommissioning trust fund, according to a 2020 filing.

The company began work in 2016 on the La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor (LACBWR), a small demonstrator reactor in Genoa operated by Dairyland Power Cooperative. The plant, which shut down in 1987, was already partly decommissioned.

EnergySolutions announced the site was cleared in 2019, and the NRC conditionally approved return of the license to Dairyland once EnergySolutions can demonstrate the site is free of contamination. The NRC later granted two six-month extensions to complete that process.

In August, the company requested another extension to address unspecified questions and potential issues raised by NRC staff. The NRC has now extended the deadline until Sept. 24, 2022.

Dairyland does not expect the delay to “cause any significant issues” for the La Crosse-based utility, which is in the process of tearing down an adjacent coal-fired power plant that was shut down in June and is studying new uses for the 104-acre site, which includes a nuclear waste storage facility, said spokesperson Katie Thomson.

According to regulatory filings, EnergySolutions had spent more than $83 million on the project through the end of last year, leaving just $60,000 in the decommissioning trust fund. EnergySolutions would be responsible for any additional costs.

Richardson said physical work on both plants is complete and it is “not unexpected” that the NRC needs time to review the reports.

“The site is in full compliance with decommissioning standards,” Richardson said. “EnergySolutions remains committed to provide full, collaborative, and transparent support to the NRC as they complete their review and has no constraints or concerns, financial or otherwise, in doing so.”

In 2017, workers at the site spilled 400 gallons of radioactive water into the Mississippi River when they left a hose overnight in tank of wastewater. Later that year the company discovered the radioactive isotope tritium in shallow groundwater, which was later traced to condensation from an exhaust vent. Neither incident resulted in a citation.

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