As reactors age, the money to close them lags

The operators of 20 of the nation’s aging nuclear reactors, including some whose licenses expire soon, have not saved nearly enough money for prompt and proper dismantling. If it turns out that they must shut down, the owners intend to let them sit like industrial relics for 20 to 60 years while interest accrues in the reactors’ retirement accounts.

Decommissioning a reactor is a painstaking and expensive process that involves taking down the huge structures and transporting the radioactive materials to the few sites around the country that can bury them. The cost is projected at $400 million to $1 billion per reactor.

Mothballing the plants leaves open the possibility that radioactive contamination in the structures could spread. While the radioactivity does decline over time, many communities worry about safe oversight of the defunct facilities.

Bills that once seemed far in the future may be coming due. For example, the license for Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt., the nation’s oldest operating reactor at 40 years, expired on March 21. And while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted its owner, Entergy, a new 20-year permit, the State of Vermont is trying to close the plant. Entergy is at least $90 million short of the projected $560 million cost of dismantling it.

Of the 20 reactors that lack the money for swift dismantling, the owners hope that license renewals from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will make the problem go away. For plants that are fighting with their host states, the federal courts may have the final say on whether and how long they keep operating. The remaining 84 active reactors have enough savings on hand to satisfy the NRC’s minimum financing requirements for eventual dismantling.

Twelve reactors across the country have been retired in the last three decades, all on short notice, because of a design or safety flaw that the economics did not justify fixing. The low price of natural gas, a competing fuel, now makes the economic lifetime of existing reactors uncertain.

Some reactors have been decommissioned in a reasonable time, like Connecticut Yankee, whose owners, a group of New England utilities, footed the cost. Decommissioning started two years after its 1996 shutdown and was completed in 2005 at a cost of $871 million.

The nuclear industry had been counting on steady returns on the funds for retiring the reactors and did not anticipate the 2008 market crash. One plant, Palisades in western Michigan, had $598 million saved up at the end of 2006, but the account was down to $219 million two years later and was only $279 million by the end of 2010, the most recent figures available.

Environmental experts say the plants can be hazardous when they are not running. The three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation pointed out that 55,000 gallons of contaminated water spilled out of a mothballed plant in Illinois after a pipe froze. An attentive night watchman was credited with catching the spill in time to contain it.

Compounding the worries about radioactive materials, the United States still lacks a permanent repository for all the spent nuclear fuel. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was ready to be licensed as a repository after some 20 years and $15 billion worth of work when it was scuttled by President Obama in 2011. So, the spent fuel at the sleeping reactors will remain on site indefinitely.

– edited from The New York Times, March 20, 2012
PeaceMeal, March/April 2012

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