During her presentation to the U.S.-Japan Roundtable on June 16, Dyan Foss of CH2M posed the question, “What does ‘done’ look like?” She was driving home the point that, despite common perception, decommissioning does not end when the nuclear facility has simply been disassembled and the area decontaminated. Rather, she argued, one of the most exciting aspects of tackling a decommissioning project is developing a vision with the local population of what the site can and will become after the nuclear reactors have been removed.
According to the Nuclear Energy Agency, the sites of decommissioned nuclear facilities can be utilized for industrial, unrestricted, or further nuclear use. This helps develop a vision of how the site of a former nuclear reactor can continue to be a vibrant, productive plot of land, rather than an off-limits dead zone.
In some instances, “done” looks like the public being free to do whatever they want with the land on which the nuclear reactor once stood. In the United States, this has traditionally been the most common vision, though most American decommissioning projects are still in SAFSTOR or a similar phase. Allowing unrestricted use in the U.S. requires that any residual radiation be below the 25 millirem annual exposure limit imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Though the IAEA no longer considers the end goal of restoring a site to its original condition “optimal,” this has been the approach in other countries as well. An example of decommissioning resulting in unrestricted land use is the 100 MWe heavy water reactor in Niederaichbach, Germany. Initially shut down in 1974 and planned for long-term safe enclosure, Niederaichbach ultimately became a poster project for unrestricted release. In mid-1995, the land on which the nuclear plant once stood was declared fit for unrestricted agricultural use, marking its return to a “green field.” For this community, the completion of decommissioning entailed regaining open access to the land, for use at local discretion.
Another efficient option for completing a decommissioning project is to repurpose the facility for another industrial use. The bulk of materials encountered during decommissioning are actually not radioactive, and can therefore be effectively recycled.
A prime example of this efficient approach is the first commercial-scale nuclear power plant in the United States to be decommissioned. The nuclear reactor at Fort St. Vrain, Colo., was a 330 MWe high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. It operated for 10 years, from 1979 to 1989, at which point it was taken offline. At that time, in an effort to recoup financial losses, Public Service Co. of Colorado submitted plans to recommission the facility as a gas-powered electricity plant. The decommissioning process lasted from 1992 to 1996, and was re-powered as a natural gas combustion plant in stages from 1995 to 2009.
This approach provided particular stability for the community surrounding the nuclear plant. Though the NRC process to assess the facility and the safety of its radioactivity levels took a year, once power generation started back up, and the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation near the original facility was constructed, employment opportunities in the area were not as dramatically affected as may happen when a plant decommissions and returns to being public land.
There is No One ‘Done”’
According to the IAEA, “The redevelopment and reuse of disused and decommissioned buildings, facilities and sites should be promoted as an opportunity rather than a constraint.” That is, decommissioning does not represent the end of a site’s usefulness. “Done” does not come when the plant shuts down and no one sets foot on the land again.
“Done” comes when the vision that an operator creates with the local community is realized, be that for productive use as farmland, continued power generation, or even an amusement park (Note: this plant never officially entered into operation). When undertaken in a fiscal- and safety-conscious manner, decommissioning can be an exciting undertaking, transitioning a facility into a new phase of productivity and engagement.