Courtesy of EnergySolutions
This is a photo of the Exelon Nuclear facility Zion Station located 40 miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan.

SALT LAKE CITY — In what is being touted as a first-of-its-kind approach, EnergySolutions has been granted a "stewardship license" to begin the largest nuclear plant dismantling ever undertaken in the United States.

The company announced Monday that it has reached an agreement to close a transaction with Exelon Nuclear for its Zion Station, which includes two nuclear reactors on the shores of Lake Michigan.

"It is very important for EnergySolutions and Exelon to have agreed to close this transaction so that decommissioning operations at the Zion Station can begin." said Val Christensen, president and chief executive officer of EnergySolutions.

The power station is about 45 miles north of Chicago. Construction on the facility began in 1968, and by 1973-74, both reactors were operational. In 1998, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the reactors were shut down because of economic reasons.

Ten years later, Exelon applied for a license transfer to Zion Solutions, a subsidiary of EnergySolutions formed to handle the management and decommissioning of the site.

The official transfer date is Sept. 1, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conditionally having approved the license transfer in March 2009.

Under this program, EnergySolutions will acquire the Zion Station assets and conduct its work as the owner and NRC licensee. EnergySolutions will process and dispose of all Zion low-level radioactive waste in Utah at its Clive, Tooele County, facility and will place the spent nuclear fuel in NRC-approved dry cask storage containers on site in Illinois.

NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said granting the license transfer was conditioned on two key factors. "No. 1, does the company (EnergySolutions) have the personnel and expertise to adopt a decommissioning project of this nature; and No. 2, does the company have sufficient decommissioning funds to carry out the full project?"

The 10-year project will tap a decommissioning trust fund valued as of July 1 at $914 million, said EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker.

What isn't spent to facilitate cleanup of the site "will be returned to the ratepayers," he said.

According to a news release issued by EnergySolutions, the goal of the program is to safely accelerate the cleanup at least 12 years ahead of schedule, enabling the land to be restored for beneficial reuse sooner than originally planned.

Mitlyng said while license transfers are routine, this is the first license transfer that has happened for the purpose of decommissioning.

"The review vehicle is pretty much the same. In this case, we looked at if the company that would like to acquire the license has the technical expertise to run a power plant or the decommissioning of a power plant. They definitely do. They are in the business of cleanup."

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The accelerated decommissioning of the power plant is expected to add several hundred jobs to the Lake County area of Illinois. The dismantling of the Zion Station is the first of 101 individual projects in a $4.6 billion Exelon program that also includes upgrades to six Illinois nuclear plants.

Both companies have until November to complete the license transfer, and as decommissioning begins, NRC regulators will be on site, inspecting the process. Exelon will retain ownership of the plant's used nuclear fuel, which will remain on the property in a secure site.