Decommissioning: Effective, But Not Quite Immediately


An aerial image of Fukushima Daiichi

As we explained in our first decommissioning piece, no nuclear power plant lives forever. On average, modern plants are slated to last approximately 40-60 years, throughout which operators must plan and budget for the lengthy process of decommissioning.

In the United States, a plant is supposed to be fully decommissioned — and the land returned to the state — within 60 years of closing. Since nuclear power emerged mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, the full test of time has not yet proven how the process will pan out, but delays and complications are already apparent in existing decommissioning endeavors.

Cost is the main barrier to decommissioning projects; since the process is intensive and long-term, accurate financial projections are difficult to make, particularly with the sheer volume of reactors up for retirement by 2040. Labor, energy and the disposal of waste materials constitute the main cost requirements of any decommissioning venture, but as projects proceed — with the added burden of long-term storage — budget overruns are common.

According to the World Nuclear Association, 153 reactors are currently categorized as under “Permanent Shutdown.” Although shutdowns predictably spike after significant events such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, the vast majority of closed reactors either fulfilled their purpose or have been deemed economically unsustainable. In addition, many reactors find themselves in the limbo of deferred dismantling as the finances and politics of decommissioning are debated. This experience has been particularly prevalent in EU countries such as Germany and France.

There are, however, many examples of entirely successful decommissioning. In the United States, Connecticut Yankee illustrates the success of full decommissioning and decontamination. It is now nothing more than land open for public use, with the exception of a few acres where the spent fuel is dry-stored. The plant was shut down after being declared economically unviable in 1996, and implementation of the immediate DECON method began in 1998. The entire process took just over 11 years, and concluded with the official release of the site in 2007.

This case exemplifies not only a model of smooth decommissioning, but also the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. Even the “immediate” decontamination option can require more than a decade of dedicated effort. This embodies a tradeoff of time for reliable, carbon emission-free power — in its 28 years of operation, Connecticut Yankee generated more than 110 billion kWh of electricity. 

Although the nuclear decommissioning experience has not been smooth for all, there are promising prospects moving forward, including at Fukushima. One of the highest-profile decommissioning projects to date, it has consistently been the subject of positive progress reports. Japan expects to finalize its risk management strategy by 2017 and start retrieving fuel debris from the shuttered facility in 2021. Though this may be perceived as frustratingly slow progress by some, the straightforward and successful example of Connecticut Yankee illustrates that when it comes to nuclear decommissioning, a lengthy timeline is both normal and necessary.