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Fuel-removal halted at damaged TMI reactor

Workers at Three Mile Island have had trouble removing damaged nuclear fuel from the Unit 2 reactor, and a federal official says the timetable for extracting the debris may be delayed again. Attempts to break up a crust of melted fuel and rubble within the reactor were not as successful as hoped, said Gordon Tomb, spokesman for plant operator GPU Nuclear Corporation.

The setback might jeopardize a one-year schedule to remove the debris as part of a plan to put the plant in storage by September 1988, said William Travers, who oversees the cleanup for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. ``It's an optimistic schedule. That's particularly true in light of the more recent findings,'' Mr. Travers said Tuesday. ``Do I think they're going to make it? It's not very likely.''

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Mr. Tomb acknowledged that fuel removal was on a tight schedule. ``We'll be evaluating it as we move along,'' he said.

During the past two months, workers used a huge drill to bore into the hardened layer in the hope of reducing it to gravel-size pieces, Tomb said. After drilling more than 400 holes, workers on a platform atop the reactor began using long-handled scoops to bring up what they believed would be the gravel-size waste. However, after probing into the reactor, their tools came up empty or with only traces of material.

A video inspection of the reactor Tuesday showed what appeared to be a two-foot diameter, rock-like chunk surrounded by compacted rubble. Workers will attempt to break up the rock and other debris later this week, Tomb said.