Decommissioning nuclear reactors

July 6, 2017

From the July-August 2017 issue of News & Letters

Every industrial project eventually has to close. Economic reasons are usually the cause, but nuclear power plants (NPP) have sometimes been shut for safety reasons. They are susceptible to aging because the ravages of ionizing radiation and high energy particles in their interior cause the reactor vessel to become brittle. It might crack with a rapid influx of water necessary to cool it in case of an accident. Cracking would let the water leak out, subjecting the plant to overheating, meltdown and explosion.

No owner wants to see their installation go the way of Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, or Three Mile Island. So, in 1991, rather than pay for the expensive annealing process to “cure” embrittlement, nine owners of the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant shut it down prematurely. Genkai, a reactor in Japan, is not being considered for restart because its vessel is embrittled. In the North American Great Lakes Basin, the Palisades plant is seriously embrittled, but Entergy, its owner, has fought efforts to close it. Now it is scheduled to close for economic reasons.


Competition with cheaper fossil fuels is the biggest reason why decommissioning NPPs is in full swing. To keep plants open, owners are extorting money from ratepayers and taxpayers with specters of massive bailouts. The nuclear industry is already one of the most heavily subsidized by the U.S. public.

nuclear-power-plants-usaWe have subsidized the nuclear project from the beginning. It began before 1942 with the development of controlled and uncontrolled reactions. (Some scientists feared that one experiment, the Castle Bravo Shot in March 1945, would set the atmosphere on fire.) The cost to develop this technology was billions in 1940s money. Whole cities were established to make space for huge plutonium production facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Rocky Flats, Colo. The cost of secrecy alone was more than most governments could afford.

Many experimental reactors were built to discover how the menace of nuclear power could be brought to such a level that the public would accept the risk.  Secrecy and obfuscation characterized every step of the way.

Insurance cannot be purchased for NPPs, so, in case of an accident, tax- and rate-payers are on the hook for the cost. In addition, the Department of Energy owns the high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) or spent fuel, which is about one million times more radioactive and much more dangerous than the original fuel. We citizens pay the cost for all of this.

None of this takes into account the human and environmental cost. Most complaints have not been honored by the U.S., so citizens pay their own medical costs and sheepherders who lost whole herds in the 1950s were forced to go out of business.


Nuclear power, however, cannot thrive because it wreaks havoc throughout the fuel cycle. From mining to decommissioning, it generates passionate opposition from its victims and capital costs so great that only the government can back its loans.

The recent debacle at Vogtle units three and four in Georgia and Summer units two and three in South Carolina revealed the bankruptcy of Toshiba—a 140-year-old stalwart of Japanese innovation—and Westinghouse. Billions of dollars were spent. Although it has not yet been finalized, maybe the powers that be will not throw good money after bad and will abandon these white elephants. In the meantime a $6.5 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy (you and me) is pending in the case of Vogtle.

Now the crumbling fleet of U.S. NPPs approaches the age of decommissioning for good reasons. But big questions remain: How is decommissioning being regulated to protect public safety? How can nuclear communities undergo a transition to new and productive jobs for the stranded workers? Since the 1980s, the Department of Energy owns the HLRW, what is going to happen to it?

Stay tuned.


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