The US nuclear industry has been undergoing a turbulent period as far as nuclear power plant decommissioning. There have been concerns by many surrounding the increasing cost of decommissioning, the decreasing fund contributions for nuclear decommissioning trusts (NDT), and the lack of permanent long-term facilities to store the spent fuel from plants that have been shut down. These issues continue to plague the US nuclear industry, but while solutions have put forward to combat some of these concerns, certain factors continue to delay the possibility of putting any remedies into effect.
Increased labor and waste management costs
Undoubtedly, the main factors affecting the price of decommissioning include the type and size of each nuclear reactor, the number of reactors located within a plant, the cost of labor as well as the necessary monitoring and continuing reviews of the site that are required and regulated by the government. In addition, based on a study by the Callan Investments Institute, the disposal of radioactive materials also adds to the cost.
Dr. Mark Cooper, a Senior Research Fellow for Economic Analysis at Vermont Law School’s, Institute for Energy ＆ The Environment, reveals the problem surrounding the rising cost of decommissioning nuclear plants is primarily due to the fact it is a dangerous material that needs to be dealt with. He explains that “when you’re dealing with something like radioactive waste and radioactive buildings, over time the understanding of the problem as well as the necessary engineering and precautions grow.” Dr. Cooper adds that, “as the challenge gets bigger and bigger, the real costs mount over time.”
According to Rodney McCullum, Senior Director of Used Fuel and Decommissioning Programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry “has recently noted an upward trend in the regulatory costs associated with decommissioning and is working with NRC to bring these costs under control.” However, he added that the NRC has considered a solution by proposing a “rulemaking in this area and industry is hopeful that a new decommissioning rule will result in a more stable and predictable regulatory framework.”
Declining NDT contributions
Based on the Callan study, contributions to NDT funds have sharply decreased. Furthermore, the study revealed that “underfunded decommissioning costs” could reach $23 billion solely from investor-owned utilities. The underlying issue is the total decommissioning costs, which increased by 4% in 2013 and reached a total of nearly $80 billion by 2014. As a result, questions have come up as to what is behind the rising decommissioning costs and why have contributions to NDT funds decreased?
The Callan study explains that the NRC oversees the decommissioning of the nuclear plants and mandates owners to reserve funds throughout a facilities operation time span. It also points out that “investor-owned contributions” decreased by $134 million over a six year period from 2007 to 2013, while in the same period of time, “public power contributions” went down by $91 million. Dr. Cooper posits that instead of focusing the decrease in NDT contributions, he stresses that the problem has a great deal to do with the plant owners themselves who were “collecting too little money.” Cooper further explains, “This is why there hasn’t been adequate resources” or funds in the NDT.
However, Anothony Leshinsky, the State Nuclear Engineer & Decommissioning Coordinator with the Vermont Service Department, believes the problem with NDT funds is not only the decreased contributions, but also the use of those funds. He points out that based on his assessment of nuclear plants such as Vermont Yankee, “there are a number of significant plant decommissioning tasks and expenses that do not readily fall into the definition of legitimate decommissioning trust fund withdrawals.” He adds that there are also expenses “that the NRC have deemed legitimate that raise the question whether NDTs, when first created, were ever intended to cover.” As a result of the use of these funds, Leshinsky concludes that, “it is very likely that the fund will show a significant shortfall in the near term.” Therefore, the solution may involve monitoring any withdrawals from NDT and ensuring that the money is being spent on projects that are covered by the fund.
The spent fuel storage dilemma
The financial problems surrounding nuclear power plant decommissioning is not the only area of concern affecting the nuclear energy industry, but the issue of where to store the spent fuel from closed plants has also been a matter where solutions have yet to be implemented.
A factsheet published by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reveals that only a handful of plants have used or are using the DECON strategy, which involves the decontamination or complete removal of contaminated materials, specifically used fuel rods and other equipment. The nuclear plants that opted for this method include San Onofre – Unit 1 (SONGS) in San Clemente, California, Humboldt Bay 3 in Eureka, California, La Crosse in Wisconsin and the Zion units in Illinois. However, based on data from the NRC, the vast majority of nuclear power plants are under SAFSTOR status, where the facility remains intact for as long as forty to sixty years, but all of the fuel is extracted from the reactor vessel and placed in fuel pools located at the site.
The issue is that the spent fuels continue to be stored at the plants themselves rather than being moved to a safer location. One of the solutions that have been presented is placing the spent fuel from plants that have been shutdown in interim storage facilities in New Mexico and Texas. According to Rodney McCullum, the “proposed facilities, one in Texas and the other nearby in New Mexico are viable options.” He added that, the “industry has long advocated for an integrated strategy for used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste management.” He also explained that, “the development of one or more interim storage facilities was a key recommendation of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in 2012.
Katrina McMurrian, the Executive Director of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition (NWSC), shared that her organization is “optimistic that the proposed interim storage facilities will provide a way for the federal government to begin meeting its legal obligations to remove spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste from sites across the country pending the licensing and operation of a repository for the permanent disposal of all the nation’s nuclear waste.”
The Yucca Mountain Waste Repository
However, there is another repository, known as the Yucca Mountain, that is suitable for the storage of spent fuel, but use of this facility is still under contention as a result of current government regulations. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was established by an amendment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1987. However, in 2009 the US Secretary of Energy stated that the “Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table,” which removed the facility as a likely solution to the issue of nuclear waste storage.
Nevertheless, both Katrina McMurrian and Rodney McCullum believe that licensing the Yucca Mountain, as a repository, is key to resolving the issue of where to store spent fuel. McCullum adds that the “U.S. Department of Energy should implement the used fuel management program, assure access to the Nuclear Waste Fund and prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities using a consent-based process.” McMurrian specifically suggests that “the federal government should follow the law and resume work on the Yucca Mountain repository,” which is the “nation’s designated site for permanent disposal that has thus far met safety requirements of the independent safety regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.” Her organization’s perspective aligns with McCullum’s suggestion, which involves developing “consolidated interim storage with a priority for the removal of used fuel stranded at sites without an operating reactor.”
It is doubtful that any of the existing solutions will be implemented immediately to combat the issues that the US nuclear industry continues to face. However, if nuclear industry experts continue to put forward suggestions as to how to tackle the problems that their sector faces, it increases the likelihood of one of those solutions being put into effect.