Although it is imperative that we shut down nuclear plants, they remain dangerous, and expensive even when closed. Radioactive inventories remain present on the site and decommissioning costs have been skyrocketing, presenting the real danger that utilities will not be able to afford to properly shut down and clean up non-operating reactor sites.



Decommissioning and the opportunity to inform safety in license renewal


Decommissioning nuclear power stations need an “autopsy” to verify and validate safety margins projected for operating reactor license extensions  


The Issue

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the lead organization for the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry, envisions the industry’s “Bridge to the Future” through a series of reactor license renewals from the original 40-year operating license; first by a 40 to 60-year extension and then a subsequent 60 to 80-year extension. Most U.S. reactors are already operating in their first 20-year license extension and the first application for the second 20-year extension (known as the “Subsequent License Renewal”) is before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for review and approval. NEI claims that there are no technical “show stoppers” to these license extensions. However, as aging nuclear power stations seek to extend their operations longer and longer, there are still many identified knowledge gaps for at least 16 known age-related material degradation mechanisms (embrittlement, cracking, corrosion, fatigue, etc.) attacking irreplaceable safety-related systems including miles of electrical cable, structures such as the concrete containment and components like the reactor pressure vessel. For example, the national labs have identified that it is not known how radiation damage will interact with thermal aging. Material deterioration has already been responsible for near miss nuclear accidents.  As such, permanently closed and decommissioning nuclear power stations have a unique and increasingly vital role to play in providing access to still missing data on the impacts and potential hazards of aging for the future safety of dramatic operating license extensions.

The NRC and national laboratories document that a post-shutdown autopsy of sorts to harvest, archive and test actual aged material samples (metal, concrete, electrical insulation and jacketing, etc.) during decommissioning provides unique and critical access to obtain the scientific data for safety reviews of the requested license extensions. A Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) 2017 report concludes, post-shutdown autopsies are necessary for “reasonable assurance that systems, structures, and components (SSCs) are able to meet their safety functions. Many of the remaining questions regarding degradation of materials will likely require[emphasis added]a combination of laboratory studies as well as other research conducted on materials sampled from plants (decommissioned or operating).” PNNL reiterates, “Where available, benchmarking can be performed using surveillance specimens. In most cases, however, benchmarking of laboratory tests will require(emphasis added)harvesting materials from reactors.” In the absence of “reasonable assurance,” it is premature for licensees to complete applications without adequate verification and validation of projected safety margins for the 60 to 80-year extension period.  

Decommissioning is not just the process for dismantling nuclear reactors and remediating radioactive contamination for site restoration. Decommissioning has an increasingly important role at the end-of-reactor-life-cycle for the scientific scrutiny of projected safety margins and potential hazards at operating reactors seeking longer and longer license extensions.                       

The Problem

After decades of commercial power operation,the nuclear industry and the NRC have done surprisingly little to strategically harvest, archive and scientifically analyze actual aged materials. Relatively few samples of real time aged materials have been shared with the NRC.  The NRC attributes the present dearth of real time aged samples to “harvesting opportunities have been limited due to few decommissioning plants.” However, ten U.S. reactors have completed decommissioning operations to date and 20 units are in the decommissioning process. More closures are scheduled to begin in Fall 2018.  A closer look raises significant concern that the nuclear industry is reluctant to provide access to decommissioning units for sampling or collectively share this cost of doing business to extend their operating licenses. Key components including severely embrittled reactor pressure vessels were promptly dismantled by utilities and buried whole without autopsy. Many permanently closed reactors have been placed in “SAFSTOR,” defueled and mothballed “cold and dark” for up to 50 years without the material sampling to determine their extent of condition and the impacts of aging. Moreover, the NRC is shying away from taking reasonable regulatory and enforcement action to acquire the requested samples for laboratory analysis after prioritizing the need for a viable license extension safety review prior to approval. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry license extension process is pressing forward. 

David Lochbaum, a recognized nuclear safety engineer in the public interest with the Union of Concerned Scientists, identifies that nuclear research on the impacts and hazards of age degradation in nuclear power stations presently relies heavily on laboratory accelerated aging---often of fresh materials---and computer simulation to predict future aging performance and potential consequences during license extension.  Lochbaum explains that “Nuclear autopsies yield insights that cannot be obtained by other means.” Researchers need to compare the results from their time-compression studies with results from tests on materials actually aged for various time periods to calibrate their analytical models.According to Lochbaum, “Predicting aging effects is like a connect-the-dots drawing. Insights from materials harvested during reactor decommissioning provide many additional dots to the dots provided from accelerated aging studies. As the number of dots increases, the clearer the true picture can be seen. The fewer the dots, the harder it is to see the true picture.” 

The Path Forward

1) Congress, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the NRC need to determine the nuclear industry’s fair share of autopsy costs levied through collective licensing fees for strategic harvesting during decommissioning and laboratory analysis of real time aged material samples as intended to benefit the material performance and safety margins of operating reactors seeking license extensions, and;

2) As NRC and the national laboratories define the autopsy’s stated goal as providing “reasonable assurance that systems, structures, and components (SSCs) are able to meet their safety functions” for the relicensing of other reactors, the NRC approval process for Subsequent License Renewal extensions should be held in abeyance pending completion of comprehensive strategic harvesting and conclusive analysis as requested by the agency and national laboratories, and;

3) Civil society can play a more active role in the independent oversight and public transparency of autopsies at decommissioning reactor sites such as through state legislated and authorized nuclear decommissioning citizen advisory panels.


Nuclear Free Future: Vermont Yankee Entergy Sale = Consequences

Watch Beyond Nuclear's radioactive waste watchdog, Kevin Kamps, on Channel 17, TownMeeting Television, cable access is Burlington, VT. He was hosted by Margaret Harrington on her show, "Nuclear Free Future." Watch the 35-minute interview at this link.



Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear talks with host Margaret Harrington about the consequences of the pending Vermont Yankee Entergy Nuclear Power Plant sale to Northstar. The US Regulatory Commission has approved the transfer of the license to the NY company, but the Vermont Public Utility Commission must rule on the sale before the deal can close. A Northstar accelerated decommissioning project could clean up the Vermont site in less than a decade. Kevin Kamps, the Radioactive Waste Watchdog for Beyond Nuclear, takes into account Northstar’s nuclear waste plans involving Waste Control Specialists and the insurance and financing for the job.


Holtec expands n-waste and new build business model with rapid decommissioning 

Every stage of the nuclear power industry is inherenty dangerous. So it is important to understood that decommissioning---dismantling---old radioactive nuclear reactors is not a benign process. Of all the links in the nuclear chain, however, decommissioning has the least environmental scrunity and regulatory oversight.  The public has no due process and very little transparency into the health, safety and environmental impacts. Quality control and quality assurances are critical agreeements for entrusting public health and safety while moving the radioactive corpus somewhere else.

The New Jersey-based company Holtec International has agreed to purchase three soon-to-close U.S. nuclear power stations to try out its new rapid decommissioning strategy. Pending U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval, Chicago-based Exelon and New Orleans-based Entergy announced sale  agreements for the Oyster Creek (NJ), Pilgrim (MA) and Palisades (MI) nuclear power stations to a fledgling company, Comprehensive Decommissioning International (CDI), formed by the 2018 merger of parent companies Holtec International and SNC-Lavalin (SNCL). CDI is offering that its prompt decommissioning strategy for commercial power reactors and site restoration can be completed inside of 8 years. The expedited dismantlement requires added state and community scrutiny.

Holtec International won the NRC approval for the new decommissioning technology, “proto-prompt decommissioning in 2008. Holtec aims to accelerate the transfer of high-level nuclear waste (irradiated nuclear fuel assemblies) from onsite wet storage in pools into onsite Holtec dry cask storage canisters.  The technology credits the dry storage cask’s new fuel basket design of “an aluminum boron carbide metal matrix composite” with ten times more thermal efficient conductivity than stainless steel. The basket welds are said not to suffer heat and radiation distortion typically seen in conventional welds.  Holtec claims the new technology allows for “young and hot” nuclear fuel from recently closed reactors to be transferred from pools into dry cask storage canisters quicker and hasten the dismantling of the sites.

Holtec International’s rapid decommissioning strategy adds to its plan to send thousands of nuclear waste shipments onto the roads, rails and barges for dry cask transport to a proposed Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CIS). The CIS is being confronted by broad opposition at the Eddy-Lea [Counties] Energy Alliance's proposal to "park" 173,600 metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel in casks in southeastern New Mexico. See Beyond Nuclear’s post on our website. Holtec has a long been subject to whistleblower concerns for cask quality control issues.  Serious questions remain including what happens in the event of a hot dry cask failure and radioactive breach on an open tarmac, what are the community emergency procedures and how is that radioactive waste going to be recontainerized?

Holtec and SNCL teamed up in 2017 in hopes to start building Holtec’s design for a small modular reactor design, the SMR-160. The SMR-160 is a 160-megawatt electric light water reactor fueled by low enriched uranium.  Using a single control room, the SMR-160 siting plan buries the multi-unit reactor complex deep underground near large populations along with onsite underground nuclear waste storage canisters. Holtec claims that the design’s passive safety features make their facility as benign as a “cotton mill or chocolate factory.” Small reactors have been around for awhile, well before the nuclear industry's "economy of scale" financial collapse. There were loads of safety and environmental problems then and now. Small reactors make more nuclear waste per megawatt hour, for example.

Decommissioning is a very important end-of-reactor-life cycle. Public vigilance is required to help make impacted communities aware of actions undertaken and consequences encountered at each phase of the decontamination, dismantlement and site restoration process. Examples of Nuclear Decommissioning Citizen Advisory Panels have an increasingly important role to play in providing the community education and transparency component where regulation and oversight have been withdrawn.


Palisades nuclear plant being sold as decommissioning approaches

As reported by MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette.

The article quotes Beyond Nuclear's Kevin Kamps:

Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear said he has concerns about the planned sale, and questions the corporate character of Holtec. 

"We're very concerned about who this company is, for one thing," he said, noting that Beyond Nuclear has had concerns with the company in the past related to activities in the nuclear industry elsewhere."

He is concerned that Holtec will work to try to pocket as much of the Palisades decommissioning funds as possible, which have been set aside to fund the decommissioning process. He fears that an accelerated decommissioning will mean more exposure to workers, and more contamination left behind.

"How deep will the cleanup go? Inches or feet?" he said. "If they rush this job they could leave a lot of contamination behind."


Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants: What Congress, Federal Agencies and Communities Need to Know

See the EESI (Environmental and Energy Study Institute) Briefing Notice for the following event:

Monday, July 16 2018    |   2 PM – 3:30 PM

Room HC-8, U.S. Capitol Building

Please RSVP to expedite check-in:

Live webcast will be streamed at:

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) invites you to a briefing on the urgent need to safely decommission nuclear power plants, which are increasingly shutting down. The United States is facing a significant wave of nuclear plant closures for which it is unprepared. Most of the existing U.S. reactor fleet will inevitably close over the next two decades, as plants near the ends of their operational lifespans. Decommissioning is the process of dismantling the closed plant and securing or removing radioactive waste while lowering the site’s residual radioactivity to safer levels. Getting decommissioning right is critical to communities’ health and safety, while getting it wrong could pose an existential threat.


Leading scientists, policy experts, NGO advocates, and local elected officials with experience of decommissioning will speak at the briefing. It will cover the impacts of decommissioning, current decommissioning options, waste storage vs. transport, thorny unsolved problems and best practices, financing and liability, a just transition for communities and workers, how communities and states can and can’t weigh in on these issues, and how they should inform the fast-changing legislative and regulatory landscape. Briefers include:


  • ·       Mayor Al Hill, of Zion, Illinois, home of the decommissioned Zion Nuclear Power Station
  • ·       Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies; former Department of Energy Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment
  • ·       Geoff Fettus, Senior Attorney for Energy & Transportation, Natural Resources Defense Council
  • ·       Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Specialist, Beyond Nuclear
  • ·       Bob Musil (moderator), President and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council; former Executive Director, Physicians for Social Responsibility

More than 80 reactor communities, as well as countless communities along proposed radioactive waste transport routes in 75 percent of Congressional districts, will be profoundly affected by how decommissioning is handled. The potential for radiological contamination, accidents, and long-term environmental, public health and economic damage increases as plants are dismantled and radioactive materials are handled, moved and stored. Reactor communities risk becoming de facto stewards of stranded high-level nuclear waste, which poses local and regional threats. Yet,  in most cases, shipping the waste can pose even greater threats. Communities will have to deal with the economic impacts of the legacy of reactor sites that can never be fully decontaminated.


The existing regulatory and legislative framework around decommissioning nuclear plants is insufficient to handle these issues, and in any case it is changing rapidly as Congress considers pending legislation (HR 3053 is just one example) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission drafts new rules that will govern decommissioning and spent fuel disposition. The experts addressing this briefing have learned surprising lessons about decommissioning that Washington needs to hear as it makes key decisions the consequences of which we will live with for a long time to come.


This briefing is co-sponsored by Beyond Nuclear, Ecological Options Network, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS), Nuclear Resource and Information Service (NIRS), Riverkeeper, Safe Energy Rights Group, Unity for Clean Energy (U4CE), and others.