Three Mile Island

In this March photo, a pickup truck travels on Route 441 in the shadow of Three Mile Island cooling towers. The iconic clouds of water vapor are no longer seen, as TMI ceased producing electricity last month.

A specialist in decommissioning nuclear reactors is negotiating to buy Three Mile Island’s idle — and infamous — Unit 2 reactor.

If the transaction occurs, the dismantling of Unit 2 could proceed much more quickly than was planned in the 1990s.

The deal is separate from the upcoming September shutdown of Three Mile Island’s Unit 1, which continues to operate.

Unit 2’s potential buyer, EnergySolutions, has a track record of decommissioning nuclear plants in years, not decades.

But none of its prior jobs posed the unique complexity of Unit 2.

Unit 2 has been shut down since March 28, 1979, when it was the site of the nation’s worst nuclear-reactor accident.

EnergySolutions, based in Salt Lake City, announced last week it has signed a non-binding agreement to buy Unit 2 for an undisclosed price from FirstEnergy.

Unit 2 was placed in long-term storage in 1993, following a 14-year, $1 billion cleanup from the accident, according to LNP files.

At that time, the plan was to mothball Unit 2 until it was time to decommission Unit 1, then decommission both at the same time to achieve economies of scale.

Unit 1 is owned by Exelon, which will shut down the plant by Sept. 30 and remove its fuel.

Then Exelon will mothball the facility to let its radioactivity dissipate and finally start to dismantle and decontaminate the facility in 2075. The dismantling will take four more years.

In total, the mothball-and dismantle process will take 60 years.

The Unit 1 plan, which follows the so-called “SAFSTOR” method, is subject to Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval.

However, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said Monday that EnergySolutions is looking to go a different way.

EnergySolutions “is apparently interested in a decommissioning approach for (Unit 2) that would involve immediate dismantlement.”

The immediate dismantlement method is the so-called “DECON” method.

“DECON” means equipment, structures and portions of the facility containing radioactive contaminants are removed or decontaminated to such a low level that the site can be released for unrestricted use and its NRC license terminated.

In the case of Unit 2, 99% of the “hottest” objects at the facility — the fuel rods — were removed in the 1980s and sent to the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for storage, said Sheehan.

“But there are still some remnants of the fuel that was damaged during the accident in parts of the plant, so that would pose some unique challenges at (Unit 2), and we would expect that to be part of any proposal to start dismantling the facility,” he said.

EnergySolutions’ spokesman Mark Walker on Monday declined to comment on which decommissioning method it would deploy at Unit 2.

He indicated that if negotiations with FirstEnergy progress and a definitive agreement is signed, he would “be able to comment further.”

Exelon, for its part, said in a statement, “We expect to still coordinate decommissioning activities, given the units’ co-location and the nuclear industry’s record of coordination and cooperation.”

Sheehan said EnergySolutions would have to get its decommissioning plan accepted by the NRC. The regulator also would have to approve the transfer of reactor license from FirstEnergy to it.

Unit 2 is known around the world for the 1979 pump failure that triggered an emergency shutdown, a partial meltdown and a radiation leak.

But the recent wave of nuclear-plant shutdowns is due to market trends.

According to the Bloomberg news service, seven U.S. nuclear plants have gone dark since 2013. At least six more, including Unit 1, are expected to close in the next few years.

The main reason is that electricity generated by nuclear plants has become more expensive than electricity generated by renewable sources and by generators fueled by natural gas.

The rash of shutdowns has spurred the emergence of decommissioning specialists, such as EnergySolutions, that decontaminate them and take them apart.

Though EnergySolutions has handled other decommissioning jobs, the Unit 2 job would be the first time it assumes full ownership of a reactor, said Bloomberg.

It’s forming a joint venture with Joseph Jingoli & Son, a New Jersey-based construction firm, to buy and handle the Unit 2 project.

In the small niche of reactor decommissioning, EnergySolutions has the longest resume.

EnergySolutions has decommissioned the Zion, Illinois, West Fork, Arkansas, and LaCrosse, Wisconsin, nuclear plants. It has decommissioning projects underway at nuclear plants in San Onofre, California, and Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.