Decomissioning: An Expert’s Insights

The full presentation is included below, and consists of many detailed graphics – Forum on Energy highly recommends examining them in depth.


On April 7, 2016, Eric Knox, a senior projects manager in the Nuclear and Environment unit of AECOM, addressed the quarterly Members Meeting of the U.S.-Japan Roundtable. A key player in the nuclear industry internationally, AECOM has “D4” credentials decommissioning, decontamination, dismantling, and demolition engaging in projects worldwide. At a critical time facing the nuclear industry, Mr. Knox provided valuable insight on the global perspective of nuclear reactor decommissioning.

Mr. Knox opened with an overview of the current state of the global nuclear energy industry, noting that 441 reactors constitute 11% of the world’s electricity, and that approximately 80% of this existing nuclear capacity is located in OECD countries.

He then transitioned to the massive decommissioning volume facing the industry in short order. So far, he reported, 110 commercial reactors, 46 experimental or prototype reactors, and 250 research reactors have been permanently shut down to date, with the IAEA projecting that a further 200 plants will retire within the next 20 years.

To drive this home, he pointed out that in the 1960s and 70s, a new reactor was brought online approximately every four months revealing a direct correlation. Therefore, the rate of retirement is projected to skyrocket in the early 2020s, as these original plants reach the end of their operable lifespan. Currently, unless a way to extend the lifespan of a plant is implemented, every reactor in the U.S. is slated for retirement by 2048.

Global reactor profile

Mr. Knox emphasized that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to decommissioning, and that the process is essentially “construction in reverse.” He identified the three main drivers for plant retirements as:

  1. 75% due to units reaching their expected economic lifetime
  2. 20 % due to political or regulatory pressures causing premature closure
  3. 5% due to accidents

Decommissioning alone costs approximately $750 million to $1 billion per nuclear unit, in addition to the high up-front costs for construction of a nuclear plant, explaining the high percentage of plants that are financially pressured to shut down.

Specific factors that contribute to the final cost of decommissioning vary from country to country. These can include particular domestic economic, political, or regulatory conditions, the funding options for decommissioning available to a country’s utilities, and most importantly the availability of waste disposal options.

decommissioning costs graph

Mr. Knox also explained that decommissioning costs and considerations extend well beyond the initial shutdown and even demolition of a plant. Disposal and long-term storage are necessary for nuclear waste, including high-grade radioactive byproducts, as well as the low-grade radioactive storage vessels.

Not counting the vessels, the existing United States nuclear fleet will generate approximately 130,000 to 140,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. With Yucca Mountain constructed for 70,000 metric tons 42 miles underground, the United States could ultimately need to double this capacity for long-term storage. Though posing an undeniable problem, Mr. Knox asserted that this quandary is manageable. The hands-on experts are highly competent, but the policy side is where the United States and other countries hit snags, which must be resolved.

Following a question from the audience, Mr. Knox briefly addressed the issue of scientific suitability of final disposal for nuclear waste. The Japanese approach, he noted, places extremely high importance on scientific suitability, which is necessary for responsible and safe long-term storage. The United States, on the other hand, may be trying too hard to pursue consent-based siting, which creates enduring roadblocks.

Ultimately, Mr. Knox provided a very thorough walkthrough of decommissioning prospects facing the major markets of the world. He outlined projects already underway, which constitute 22,654 MWe in Europe, and 4,391 MWe between Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (not counting Fukushima Daiichi). After walking through scenarios of reactor extensions, he still concluded that the total spent on nuclear decommissioning in the next 30 years could exceed $200 billion.

Projected intl d&d mkt

With solar power near-parity on the grid and natural gas projected to remain cost-competitive for quite some time, the significant portion of nuclear plants facing decommissioning due to cost concerns becomes of even greater importance, as there are few new projects slated to fill this impending gap in capacity. Mr. Knox argued that, with the fixed costs of nuclear remaining high, the other benefits of nuclear energy must become key selling points, in order to ensure the future of the industry and global energy security.

Chief among these benefits are land use figures the physical footprint of a 1000MW nuclear plant is negligible in comparison with the approximately one million acres needed for the same capacity of solar. Also, nuclear energy is an attractive option for grid management issues. Solar and wind are prone to peaking and bottoming out unpredictably, straining grid management significantly. Mr. Knox pointed to Germany as a prime example of the already-evident grid management issues as its utilities struggle with the renewable ramp-up and nuclear shutdown.

In terms of quantification and effective visualization, Mr. Knox’s presentation is an invaluable resource for the U.S.-Japan Roundtable for understanding the realities facing the global decommissioning market and the possibilities of various scenarios. No matter what, nuclear decommissioning will certainly boom in the coming decades and experts like Mr. Knox are vital for ensuring the responsible development of this ever-evolving field.