Decommissioning a nuclear reactor

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Preface. Below are excerpts of articles about the costs and challenges of dismantling nuclear power plants in Europe.

Other decommissioning news:

2018: Clearing the Radioactive Rubble Heap That Was Fukushima Daiichi, 7 Years On. The water is tainted, the wreckage is dangerous, and disposing of it will be a prolonged, complex and costly process.  The Japan Center for Economic Research, a private think tank, said the cleanup costs could mount to some $470 billion to $660 billion and take far longer than the initial 30-40 year estimate.

2017-5-17 Lithuania RBMK plant clean-up cost forecast at $1.3 billion euros per reactor

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Jim Green. 2019. Nuclear decommissioning era approaches. Ecologist.

A new era is approaching ‒ the era of nuclear decommissioning, which will entail:

  • A decline in the number of operating reactors.
  • An increasingly unreliable and accident-prone reactor fleet as ageing sets in.
  • Countless battles over lifespan extensions for ageing reactors.
  • An internationalization of anti-nuclear opposition as neighboring countries object to the continued operation of ageing reactors (international opposition to Belgium’s ageing reactors is a case in point ‒ and there are numerous other examples).
  • Battles over and problems with decommissioning projects (e.g. the UK government’s £100+ million settlement over a botched decommissioning tendering process).
  • Battles over taxpayer bailout proposals for companies and utilities that haven’t set aside adequate funds for decommissioning and nuclear waste management and disposal. (According to Nuclear Energy Insider, European nuclear utilities face “significant and urgent challenges” with over a third of the continent’s nuclear plants to be shut down by 2025, and utilities facing a €118 billion shortfall in decommissioning and waste management funds.)
  • Battles over proposals to impose nuclear waste repositories and stores on unwilling or divided communities.

There will likely be an average of 8‒11 permanent reactor shutdowns annually over the next few decades. This will add up to about 200 reactor shutdowns between 2014 and 2040.

The International Energy Agency expects a “wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors” and an “unprecedented rate of decommissioning”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) anticipates 320 gigawatts (GW) of retirements from 2017 to 2050, which is about 80% of the current worldwide reactor fleet.

Other estimates are 140 to 200 reactors closing by 2035.

That won’t be made up for by the 41 reactors expected to begin operating by 2022.  Worldwide 49 reactors are under construction.  What growth exists is mainly due to China, but their enthusiasm seems to have ended in 2016 since now new commercial construction sites have existed since then, nor is India or other Asian states likely to build reactors.

Generation IV fantasies are as fantastical as ever. David Elliot ‒ author of the 2017 book Nuclear Power: Past, Present and Futurenotes that many Generation IV concepts “are in fact old ideas that were looked at in the early days and mostly abandoned. There were certainly problems with some of these early experimental reactors, some of them quite dramatic.”  One example of the gap between Generation IV rhetoric and reality was Transatomic Power’s decision to give up on its molten salt reactor R&D project in the US in September 2018.

Nor do these smaller reactors appear to be economically viable. Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in July 2018, argues that no US advanced reactor design will be commercialized before mid-century.  They also investigated how a domestic market could develop to support a small modular reactor industry in the US over the next few decades ‒ including using them to back up wind and solar, desalinate water, produce heat for industrial processes, or serve military bases ‒ and were unable to make a convincing case.

The era of nuclear decommissioning will be characterized by escalating battles (and escalating sticker shock) over reactor lifespan extensions, decommissioning and nuclear waste management.  In those circumstances, it will become even more difficult than it currently is for the industry to pursue new reactor projects. A feedback loop could take hold and then the nuclear industry will be well and truly in crisis, if it isn’t already.

Arthur Neslen. 2016. Europe faces €253bn nuclear waste bill. The Guardian.

Europe faces a €253bn bill for nuclear waste management and plant decommissioning: €123bn of that to decommission old reactors and €130bn for the management of spent fuel, radioactive waste and deep geological disposal processes.  Some 90% of the continent’s nuclear plants are set to shut by 2050 – almost half within the next decade.

At present, nuclear reactors make up 27% of Europe’s energy capacity and produce less carbon over their lifetime than fossil fuels such as gas, coal or oil. But no solution has yet been found for the long-term storage of radioactive waste.

The commission’s experts considered closed fuel recycling of plutonium and uranium in ‘fast breeder reactors’ so long-term and uncertain a prospect that they did not forecast possible scenarios for its becoming available this century.

7 March 2012. How to dismantle a nuclear reactor. New Scientist.

decommisioning nuclear reactor

By the start of 2012, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 138 commercial power reactors had been permanently shut down with at least 80 expected to join the queue for decommissioning in the coming decade – more if other governments join Germany in deciding to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year.

And yet, so far, only 17 of these have been dismantled and made permanently safe. That’s because decommissioning is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

A standard American or French-designed pressurised water reactor (PWR) – the most common reactor design now in operation – will produce more than 100,000 tonnes of waste, about a tenth of it significantly radioactive, including the steel reactor vessel, control rods, piping and pumps. Decommissioning just a single one generally costs up to half a billion dollars.

Decommissioning Germany’s Soviet-designed power plant at Greifswald produced more than half a million tonnes of radioactive waste. The UK’s 26 gas-cooled Magnox reactors produce similar amounts and will eventually cost up to a billion dollars each to decommission. That’s because they weren’t designed with decommissioning in mind.

The many variations also mean that there is no agreed-upon standard for how to go about the process. If you want to decommission a nuclear power plant, you have three options. The first is the fastest: remove the fuel, then take the reactor apart as swiftly as possible, storing the radioactive material somewhere safe to await a final burial place.  The second approach is to remove the fuel but lock up the reactor, letting its troublesome radioactive isotopes decay, which makes dismantling easier – much later.  The third option is to simply entomb the reactor where it is.

Even when the reactor can be dismantled, where do you put the radioactive waste? Even the least contaminated material – old overalls, steel heat exchangers and toilets – must be carefully separated and sent to specially licensed landfill sites. Not every country has such designated facilities. Intermediate-level waste, contrary to its name, is even more of a problem because it may require deep ground burial alongside the high-level spent fuel.

In 1976, a British Royal Commission said no more nuclear power plants should be built until the waste disposal problems were resolved. Thirty-five years on, nothing much has changed.

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