US nuclear plant operators may not have enough money to decommission their aging reactors. If the reactors have to be shut down, it may be 20 to 60 years until they have enough money in the funds set up to pay for decommissioning.
The industry claims they are victims of the 2008 financial turmoil and market collapse.
From New York Times by Matthew L. Wald (3/20/2012; emphasis is mine):
WASHINGTON — 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 close, the owners intend to let them sit like industrial relics for 20 to 60 years or even longer while interest accrues in the reactors’ retirement accounts.
Decommissioning a reactor is a painstaking and expensive process that involves taking down 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, which in some cases is more than what it cost to build the plants in the 1960s and ’70s.
Mothballing the plants makes hundreds of acres of prime industrial land unavailable for decades and leaves open the possibility that radioactive contamination in the structures could spread. While the radioactivity levels decline over time, many communities worry about safe oversight.
Bills that once seemed far into the future may be coming due. The license for Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt., at 40 the nation’s oldest reactor, expires on Wednesday, for example. 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.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has vowed to force the two operating reactors at another Entergy plant, Indian Point, 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, to shut down when their licenses expire in 2013 and 2015 by denying them state environmental permits.
Entergy is at least $90 million short of the projected $560 million cost of dismantling Vermont Yankee; the company is at least $500 million short of the $1.5 billion estimated cost of dismantling Indian Point 2 and 3.
The shortfall raises the possibility that Vermont could tend one sleeping reactor for decades while New York oversees three; Unit 1 , another reactor at Indian Point, shut down in 1974 and has yet to be dismantled.
Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman is uneasy about the prospect of a 60-year wait.
“These facilities should be cleaned up, and their footprints reduced as much as possible so that these areas can be returned to other productive uses within the community,” the chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, said recently.
Gil C. Quiniones, the president and chief executive of the New York Power Authority, a state utility that sold Indian Point 3 to Entergy in 2000, called Entergy’s failure to plan for or finance the decommissioning of Indian Point in real time “stunningly irresponsible.”
“Delaying action for 60 years — when Entergy might no longer even exist — is offensive to the communities of Westchester County and the people of New York,” he said. James Steets, a spokesman for Entergy, said that financing would not be a problem because the company still expects to obtain new 20-year licenses for Units 2 and 3, which would allow time for savings to grow, and to prevail on the state permit issue.
Assuming that the plants remain open for two more decades, the company has promised Westchester County that it will decommission Indian Point in a “reasonable” period of time after the reactors close, probably in the 2030s.
Of the 20 reactors that lack the money for swift deconstruction, the owners hope that license renewals from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will make the problem go away. For the plants that are fighting with their host states, Indian Point and Vermont Yankee, the federal courts may have the final say on whether and how long they keep operating. (A large demonstration in favor of closing the plant is planned for Wednesday at Vermont Yankee.)
The remaining 84 active reactors have enough savings on hand to satisfy the commission’s minimum financing requirements for eventual dismantling, some of them because they won license extensions.
The nuclear industry had been counting on steady returns on the funds and did not anticipate the 2008 market crash. Altogether the nation’s 104 power reactors have about $40 billion on hand. “A lot of decommissioning funds did take a hit at the nadir of the economic crisis,” said Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the regulatory commission.
One plant, Palisades in western Michigan, had $597.6 million saved up at the end of 2006, but the account was down to $218.8 million two years later and was only $279.2 million by the end of 2010, the most recent figures show.
Bruce Biewald, an economist who specializes in electricity economics at Synapse Energy, a Boston consulting firm, said the mothball strategy carries risks that could outweigh benefits. Proponents say “it’s like magic — compound interest on the one hand and radioactive decay on the other,” he said. (Because radioactivity levels decline over time, deconstruction workers would ultimately be exposed to less contamination.) But future investment returns could prove bleak, Mr. Biewald warns, and anticipated deconstruction costs could easily rise.
Responding to a petition from Sherwood Martinelli, an antinuclear activist who lives near Indian Point, Dr. Jaczko, the regulatory commission chairman, sought a shorter period between closing and dismantling.
But in October, Dr. Jaczko was outvoted 4 to 1 by his fellow commissioners. And the commission’s staff said that even 60 years was not a hard-and-fast outer time limit for suspending a reactor’s operations.
In the industry, this status is known as Safstor and it usually involves putting the spent nuclear fuel into storage casks on site, draining many of the plant’s fluids, making security arrangements and maintaining the reactor so it looks like a decent neighbor.
Environmental experts say the plants can be dangerous when they are not running. In a letter, 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.
Indian Point 1 has leaked a variety of radioactive materials into the soil on the banks of the Hudson in the 38 years since it closed, a point acknowledged by Entergy, which responded by emptying a spent fuel pool that was the source of the problem. The environmental group Riverkeeper argues that this is a harbinger of further trouble if Units 2 and 3 enter Safstor.
Compounding the worries about radioactive materials, the nation still lacks a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel after decades of jockeying by politicians who sought to bar it from their backyards. So the fuel at the sleeping reactors will remain on site.
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, makes the economic lifetime of existing reactors uncertain.
Some have been decommissioned in a few years, 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.
In Haddam, Conn., officials are still advertising for a new industrial tenant for its former site on the east bank of the Connecticut River.
Asked if tearing it down had been the right call, Paul J. DeStefano, the town’s first selectman and top official, said, “I’m a little hesitant, from a layman’s standpoint, of having something sitting around for 60 years. It just doesn’t sound right.”