Photo Courtesy Exelon Corporation
EnergySolutions underestimated Zion's decommissioning cost by about $100 million.

The company charged with decommissioning a nuclear powerplant in Zion, Ill.—among the largest undertakings of its kind in the nation—could face a financial shortfall before completing work on the $800-million project, according to Chicago-based former plant operator Exelon.

Exelon officials indicated that, late last year, nuclear-waste management firm EnergySolutions informed them of a potential shortfall and how the company intended to address it. "They've kept us apprised of all activity involving the project every step of the way," says Exelon spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski. "They are on track to complete the work that's outlined in our agreement."

EnergySolutions, based in Salt Lake City, has indicated that, despite a projected short-term gap, it anticipates the eight-year undertaking will finish in the black upon completion in 2018.

The project, funded by state electric ratepayers, has stirred interest because of its unique delivery. In a first-of-its-kind arrangement, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010 authorized Exelon to transfer the plant's operating license and liabilities to EnergySolutions, a pact that promised to reduce significantly the time required to dismantle the 2,080-MW plant, deactivated since 1998. "We operate plants. EnergySolutions dismantles them," says Lopykinski. "Had we not transferred operating rights to the firm, we would have had to go out and hire a contractor to get the work done."

Among other activities, the arrangement requires EnergySolutions to dismantle Zion piece by piece and ship the material to a radioactive-waste disposal facility it owns in Clive, Utah.

Should a shortfall hinder completion of work, ownership could revert to Exelon, with cost overruns covered by a $200-million letter of credit Energy Solutions secured for the project.

In March 2012, a year and a half after beginning work on Zion, Energy- Solutions said it had underestimated the cost of completing the project by about $100 million. Firm President and CEO David Lockwood told reporters, "We undertook Zion for strategic, not financial, reasons," adding that the project was intended to position the firm for similar work in countries such as Germany, which plans to shutter its nuclear plants.

The Zion project marked a milestone last month, when crews completed removal of all spent nuclear fuel from the facility's storage pool. The material was loaded into 61 dry-cask storage containers and transferred to an independent spent-fuel storage installation pad over a period of a year.

Exelon will assume responsibility for the 200-acre site upon completion of the project. The company has said that it plans to make the parcel available for commercial uses.