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Nuclear Energy


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Current technology and existing regulations adequately provide for safe, environmentally-sound decommissioning at acceptable costs.1

Extensive study has been devoted to decommissioning. Experts have already overseen the decommissioning of 16 reactors in the U.S. and of more than 30 reactors overseas.2


The high levels of radiation present in shutdown reactors will make decommissioning complex and costly.3

The question of how to safely and economically dispose of nuclear reactors is still largely unanswered. This formidable issue is getting less attention than it deserves.4

AMA Commentary

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines "decommissioning" as the removal of a nuclear facility safely from service and the reduction of residual radioactivity to a level that permits the release of the property for unrestricted use.5

The planned, design service life-span of commercial nuclear power plants is between 30-40 years,6 and the NRC generally grants plants 40-year operating licenses.7 Under normal operating conditions, nuclear plants wear out because their steel containment vessels and metal piping become too brittle after years of bombardment by neutrons.8

Although no commercial plant is close to the end of its design service life, there are several other possible reasons for closing a plant:

  1. operation becomes inefficient due to decreased availability as a result of extraordinary increases in repair and maintenance requirements;

  2. the need for major, complex repairs;

  3. requirements imposed retroactively to fulfill revised safety regulations may involve unjustifiable expenditures; or

  4. a major accident causes closure due to economic, technical, and/or safety considerations.9

Currently, there are three approaches to decommissioning reactors: immediate decontamination (DECON), safe storage followed by later decontamination (SAFSTOR), and entombment (ENTOMB). The NRC defines these procedures as follows:

DECON - The equipment and structures containing radioactive containments are removed or decontaminated to a level that permits the property to be released for unrestricted use shortly after the end of operations.

SAFSTOR - The facility is placed and maintained in such condition that it can be safely secured and decontaminated in the future to levels that permit its release for unrestricted use.10 (After approximately 50 years in storage, most of the short-lived radioisotopes will decay, and the facility will be dismantled).11

ENTOMB - Radioactive contaminants are encased in a structurally long-lived material such as concrete. The entombed structure is appropriately maintained and the property is guarded during the period of entombment until the radioactivity decays to unrestricted release levels.12 (ENTOMB is no longer considered a probable decommissioning option for large commercial reactors. Because of the longevity of several radioisotopes, the protective structure would decay long before the radioactivity within it.)13

More than a dozen commercial reactors worldwide have been permanently shut down,14 (click here to see the Decommissioning Chart) and the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that, worldwide, 100 large nuclear plants could be closed during the next 15 years -- over half of which are located in the United States.15

Although many small research and experimental reactors have been decommissioned, the world's largest dismantling project to date is underway at Pennsylvania's 72-megawatt Shippingport Atomic Power Station.16 Dismantlement of the Shippingport reactor began in September 1985 under the auspices of the Department of Energy (DOE). The project is viewed by the DOE as the model for decommissioning larger, commercial reactors. The estimated cost of the five year project is $98.3 million.17

Critics argue that Shippingport is not an appropriate model to use for gauging the cost of dismantling commercial reactors. The Shippingport reactor pressure vessel will be shipped, intact, to the federal waste disposal site in Hanford, Wash. Larger pressure vessels in commercial reactors will have to be cut up, involving more expensive and intricate radiation protection and shipping procedures.18 John Schreiber, the DOE's on-site manager at Shippingport, contends that because of the reactor's early design, it has almost as many radioactive pieces as a typical 1000 megawatt commercial reactor.19

At the present time, the exact cost of decommissioning a large nuclear plant is unknown. The NRC has proposed rules that would require all utilities to develop plans for funding the shutdown of used plants. However, a provision in the rule that estimates the cost of decommissioning at $100 million (1984 dollars) has attracted widespread criticism. In April 1987, William Voight, director of the DOE's office of remedial action and wast technology told a House subcommittee that cost estimates for decommissioning are often well above the level established by the NRC.20

In April 1986, a spokesperson for the Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) estimated that a large facility would cost about $170 million to decommission.21 In April 1987, AIF's vice-president, Frank Graham, estimated that the cost of immediate dismantling would be $200 million.22 Other estimates for decommissioning a single reactor run as high as $400 million.23

A critical decommissioning cost variable is dependent upon how much it costs to dispose of low-level and high-level nuclear waste. The cost of disposing of low-level waste has risen over 1900 percent in the past ten years. Currently, no facility in the country accepts high-level waste, such as spent fuel rods, so it must remain stored on-site.24

Although the NRC is attempting to create and implement uniform decommissioning guidelines, the questions of how and when to include decommissioing charges in a utility's rate base is currently determined by individual states' rate-setting authorities.25

On March 6, 1987, California's Public Utilities Commission unanimously accepted an engineering firm's forecast that decommissioning Pacific Gas & Electric Company's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant would cost $578.6 million (1985 dollars). Taking inflation into account, the proposed rate increase necessary to pay for the cost of shutting down the plant adds up to $1.6 billion over a 30-year period, or $53.2 million a year. Based on average monthly electric bills statewide, this rate increase will cost every PG&E customer between 35 to 37 cents a month.26

It is unlikely that any large commercial reactors will be dismantled this century. Instead they will be fenced in and guarded, at an annual cost of approximately $1 million for each site.27

1 Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., "Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants," information sheet, December 1986.
2 Ibid.
3 Cynthia Pollock, Decommissing: Nuclear Power's Missing Link, (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, April 1986), No. 69, pp. 5-6.
4 Ibid., p. 7.
5 E.B. Moore, "Costs and Radiological Impacts of Decommissioning Nuclear Reactor Stations with Delayed Offsite Waste Disposal," Nuclear Safety, July-Sept. 1986, p. 360.
6 Gina Maratino, ed., "Adding to Electric Costs: The Retirement of Brittle, Old Reactors," Discover, November, 1986, p. 6.
7 Steve Olson, "Decommissioning map for the future," Science 84, September, 1984, p. 56.
8 Barry Siegel, "How to Split Aging Atom Splitters," Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1986, 1:28.
9 J.T.A. Roberts, R. Shaw and K. Stahlkopt, "Decommissioning of Commercial Nuclear Power Plants," Annual Review of Energy, 1985, Vol. 10, p. 251.
10 Ibid., pp. 2534-4.
11 Pollock, op. cit., pp. 8-9.
12 Roberts, et al, op. cit., pp. 253-4.
13 Pollock, op. cit., p. 9.
14 J. Raloff, "Retiring reactors: What's the cost?," Science News, April 12, 1986, Vol. 129, p. 230.
15 "Radioactive Headache," The Futurist, March-April, 1986, p. 47.
16 Raloff, op. cit.
17 Siegel, op. cit.
18 Ibid.
19 Mark A. Fischetti, ed., "When reactors reach old age," IEEE Spectrum, February 1985, p. 31.
20 Timothy Aeppel, "Planning for nuclear plant 'retirement' is proving difficult," Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1987, p. 3.
21 Raloff, op. cit.
22 Aeppel, "Planning for nuclear plant 'retirement' is proving difficult," op. cit., p. 3.
23 Siegel, op. cit.
24 Aeppel, op. cit., p. 3.
25 Fischetti, op. cit., pp. 31-32.
26 Bob Egelko, "Rate Hike tied to Diablo closing," The Outlook, March 7, 1987, A:16.
27 Siegel, op. cit.