In a first-of-its-kind deal, waste management firm EnergySolutions Inc. has taken control of the shut-down Zion nuclear powerplant near Chicago from owner Exelon Corp.; the firm will decommission and dismantle the facility, built in 1973, and return it to a greenfield state under budget and ahead of schedule.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted EnergySolutions, Salt Lake City, control of the Lake County, Ill., plant’s license. The firm is set to clean up the 257-acre Lake Michigan site in seven to 10 years, including paperwork and environmental remediation, and return license and site control to Chicago-based Exelon.The industry standard is about 12 years.

Zion is the largest-ever nuclear-plant dismantling undertaken in the U.S. and the first time NRC has approved transfer of a nuclear operating license to a third party for decommissioning. Historically, U.S. plants have been dismantled by a third party without control of the license or by a utility acting as contractor.

Exelon initially intended to dismantle the plant in the 2020s or 2030s. Because EnergySolutions owns a low-level Class-A nuclear-waste disposal site in Clive, Utah, it can decommission Zion faster and cheaper, says an Exelon spokeswoman. CEO Val Christensen says the firm expects to do the job for less than the estimated $1 billion available through the decommissioning trust fund and contingencies, with an estimated $200-million return. He says EnergySolutions may even return money to utility ratepayers who paid into the trust fund.

Between 200 and 450 workers will be employed, with most heavy-equipment work subcontracted, Christensen says. The firm first will remove highly contaminated reactor components, refurbish site infrastructure and build a dry-cask storage facility for used nuclear fuel on-site until the U.S. develops a permanent nuclear disposal strategy, he adds. All Class-A waste will be packaged and rail-shipped to Clive, with regular NRC inspections. Christensen says much of plant debris will not be radioactive and can go to regular landfills or be used on-site.