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Rapid Response: The AP Distorts Reality of Decommissioning, June 17, 2009

A recent story by The Associated Press, “Funds to Shut Nuclear Plants Fall Short” calls for a clarification of various skewed views of the funding, safety and security issues related to the decommissioning of nuclear power plants contained in the article.

Below, we examine the real facts behind decommissioning nuclear power plants.
 



Myth #1: “..half the nation’s nuclear reactors are not setting aside enough money to dismantle them.”

The Facts: On the heels of the nation’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, 70 percent of the nation’s nuclear reactors continue to meet regulatory requirements for decommissioning funding at plants that, by and large, will continue to operate and accrue additional decommissioning funds into the 2030s and beyond. 

The remaining 30 percent may have funds that temporarily have fallen below expected funding levels at this point in the plant's life, but all those licensees will be making any necessary adjustments to decommissioning funding, consistent with NRC regulations and guidance directed at addressing such conditions. 

This remains the case despite the fact that the estimated total decommissioning cost across the industry has increased by about 10 percent, or $4.6 billion, over the past two years. 


 



Due to recent extraordinary market conditions, some reactor licensees’ decommissioning fund balances are expected to be below Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “certification amounts” for decommissioning.

However, given that most—if not all—operating reactors will seek license renewals to extend operations by up to 20 years, sufficient decommissioning funds are not needed immediately.

Another option for nuclear power plants is SAFSTOR status. SAFSTOR status is when a nuclear plant is maintained and monitored in a safe condition without operating and producing electricity. When SAFTSTOR status ends, the plant is dismantled.

SAFSTOR status may last for up to 60 years to allow shorter-lived radionuclides to decay prior to substantial decontamination activities. Additionally, SAFSTOR can follow license renewal: a nuclear power plant could receive a 20-year license renewal and then be put into SAFSTOR status for a combined total of up to 80 years.

License renewal and SAFSTOR can substantially increase the investment horizon for accumulating decommissioning funds. And in the meantime, although past performance is no guarantee of future results, these funds should return to adequate levels.

Finally, historic market fluctuations have had no effect on decommissioning timetables:

• Every power reactor that has been (or is currently being) decommissioned has been able to fund and safely perform required decommissioning activities. 

• This has been the case even in situations where the licensee did not operate the facility to the end of its license term (i.e. the facility was prematurely shutdown), and in situations where licensees sought protection under bankruptcy laws. 

• Despite significant market fluctuations in 1987 and 2001/2002, the existing regulatory framework has been effective.

For more information see Decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants from NEI.

 


 

Myth #2: Decommissioned nuclear plants “sit idle for decades and pose safety and security risks as a result.”

The Facts: Decommissioning, including safety and security issues, is strictly regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The NRC will approve a decommissioning plan only if the plan demonstrates that decommissioning will not adversely affect public health and safety. 

 


 

Throughout the decommissioning process, regulatory oversight is provided by the NRC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Transportation and the EPA.

• Five years before a company plans to terminate plant operation, it must submit a preliminary decommissioning cost estimate to the NRC. 

• Within two years following a plant’s shutdown, its operator must submit a report on its post-shutdown decommissioning activities to the NRC and the affected states. The report must include a description of the planned decommissioning option (DECON, SAFSTOR or ENTOMB), a schedule for completion, a discussion of how site-specific decommissioning activities will adhere to previously issued environmental impact statements and an estimate of expected costs. 

• The NRC reviews the report and holds public meetings to discuss the company’s plans and the regulatory oversight process. At the end of 90 days, if the NRC has no objections, the company may begin decommissioning. 

• The NRC also makes the plan available to the public for comment and schedules a public meeting near the facility to discuss its contents. The public has the opportunity to request adjudicatory hearings.

Once public concerns are addressed, the NRC will approve the plan—assuming it demonstrates that the remain¬ing decommissioning activities will be performed according to federal regulations and that they will not adversely affect public health and safety or the environment.

These are the three decommissioning options:

DECON (Decontamination).
In DECON, all components and structures that are radioactive are cleaned or dismantled, packaged, and shipped to a low-level waste disposal site, or they are stored temporarily on site.

SAFSTOR (Safe Storage).
In SAFSTOR, the nuclear plant is kept intact and placed in protective storage for up to 60 years. This method, which involves securing that part of the plant containing radioactive materials and monitoring it with an on-site radiation protection and security staff, uses time as a decontaminating agent. Once radioactivity has decayed to lower levels, the unit is taken apart, similar to DECON. The facility continues to be regulated under an NRC license and is periodically inspected by the NRC to ensure that all radiation safety and security requirements are being met.

ENTOMB.
This option involves encasing radioactive structures, systems and components in a long-lived substance, such as concrete. However, the entombment option has never been implemented in either detailed regulatory guidance or in practice.

For more information see Decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants from NEI.