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Decommissioning a Nuclear Plant Can Cost $1 Billion and Take Decades

Spent fuel also creates new stockpiles of radioactive waste in need of disposal, with few options available

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Jun 13, 2011
Zion nuclear power station

When the Zion Nuclear Power Station in Illinois closed its doors in 1998, plant owner Commonwealth Edison, now part of , thought it would take more than two decades to clean up the site.

At the time, Zion needed repairs that exceeded the value of the 2,080-megawatt plant, and dismantling it was the better financial option, said Craig Nesbit, vice president of communications at Exelon. But when operations ceased, the flow of money from utility ratepayers also stopped, drying up the source of Zion's decommissioning funds.

The company opted to delay its cleanup plan. Aside from removing the main reactor components, Exelon would not begin the rest of the work until the 2020s, by which time the funds would have accumulated enough interest to cover the full decommissioning process.

Luckily for Exelon, though, another option presented itself when , a nuclear waste managment company based in Salt Lake City, offered to take over the decommissioning plan. The company acquired the Zion plant in September 2010. According to EnergySolutions CEO Val Christensen, full decommissioning will cost about $1 billion dollars over the next 10 years.

EnergySolutions can expedite the cleanup because of its technical capacity, said Christensen. His company is currently decommissioning 18 reactors in England. They also own a low-level nuclear waste storage facility in Clive, Utah, which will speed up the waste disposal process.

The move has saved Exelon considerable headache and illuminates some of the unseen challenges of nuclear energy operation. Indeed, other plant operators haven't been as lucky when it came to decontaminating their nuclear reactor sites.

Although the usual critiques of nuclear generation revolve around safety risks and high construction fees, relatively little attention has been paid to what happens when a nuclear plant powers down for good.

Costs Can Reach Over $1 Billion

Every nuclear plant must be decommissioned at the end of its useful life, usually after it has been operating for 40-60 years. The costly, labor-intensive process involves two major actions: nuclear waste disposal and decontamination to reduce residual radioactivity.

The U.S. currently operates 104 commercial nuclear power plants. Most were built in the 1970s and are slated for decommissioning during the next three decades. As of April 2011, there were 23 nuclear units in various stages of decommissioning. Ten out of the 23 have been completely cleaned up.

According to Paul Genoa, director of policy development of the , a trade group for the nuclear power industry, decommissioning costs typically run at $500 million per unit. But actual costs vary based on the plant's size and design, and some have reached over $1 billion — between 10 percent and 25 percent of the cost of constructing a nuclear reactor today.

Projects can run over budget if the plant is more contaminated than previously thought, said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the .

Industry Learns from Mistakes

A decommissioned plant creates several different streams of waste. For one, spent nuclear fuel rods are kept in dry storage at the reactor sites. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an average nuclear plant generates 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel annually, or 1,200 metric tons over a plant's 60-year lifespan — an amount equivalent to the size and weight of about 1,200 SUVs.

Two, anything contaminated with small levels of radiation — pipes, tools, workers' clothing — are sent to special low-level nuclear waste facilities around the country. The remaining non-radiated waste can be disposed of in regular landfills.

Human error can complicate the cleanup process.

Ormand It didn't sound biased


It didn't sound biased to me. While Solve Climate is not a big fan of nuclear, I thought they did a pretty good job of sticking with facts, nonetheless. In fact, the article is mostly industry people speaking for themselves.

I don't think the comparison of deaths from various energy types is a very good argument, even though it is one of the most oft repeated, by nuclear advocates. With nuclear, it's the ability to be the gift that keeps on giving, potentially for a long time, even though the number of deaths up till now has been relatively small. Chernobyl did cause at least 3,000 cancer cases.

Coal is the biggest threat at present, and kills the most people. That I agree on. And it too can go on doing harm for a long time

Very biased article.

Nuclear reactors cost money. They also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, pollution from oil, deaths from mining coal, atmospheric pollution with mercury, and so on.

The fair way to evaluate sources of energy is deaths and disease per kilowatt-hour.

I await such an analysis, to replace the steady stream of one-sided articles.

Fear-mongering demeans Solve Climate. Waste is a solvable problem. 

There are no cheap solutions. Be honest, and stick to apples to apples comparisons.

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