Decommissioning Costs

Decommissioning costs - the funds needed when a reactor is shut down and the site needs to be dismantled, removed and cleaned up - are sky-rocketing. Worse, many utilities have invested these funds in the now troubled stockmarket, meaning decommissioning funds may not be available when needed.



The global state of nuclear decommissioning: costs rising, funds shrinking, and industry looks to escape liability by decades of delay

It has never been more apparent that the skyrocketing costs to dismantle closed nuclear power stations are alarmingly similar to the unpredictable and now prohibitively high cost to build atomic plants. Of more concern, the decommissioning funds needed to clean up radioactive reactor sites are steadily shrinking each year.

Decommissioning cost estimates have outpaced inflation fourfold since 1988. Permanent reactor closures are anticipated to continue because of increasingly poor performance of nuclear economics and mounting safety concerns. The next nuclear accident will accelerate closures even faster widening the gap between what's on hand and what is really needed to "de-license" these radiological hulks. 

How and when these mounting nuclear decommissioning costs get paid for and by whom was the subject of an international symposium of the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris, France on April 22, 2016. Beyond Nuclear’s Paul Gunter was invited by NEA to participate as a panelist with industry and regulators to present some of civil societies’ growing concerns on failing decommissioning finances.  The next day, Paul was also invited to speak at an anti-nuclear demonstration in western France’s controversial decommissioning site of the Brennilis nuclear power station for the 30th commemoration of the Chernobyl catastrophe.  The 70 MWe Brennilis nuclear power plant was permanently shutdown in 1985. After spending 480 million Euros ($542.5 million), Brennilis still sits in decommissioning limbo and is not scheduled to complete dismantlement until 2035 at even greater cost. Currenty 146 other closed reactors around the world remain on a decommissioning waiting list with only 16 reactors to date completing the dismantlement process. However, indeterminate nuclear waste storage continues on many of these sites.

The Beyond Nuclear message at both events was the same. There is a growing consensus among civil society that the “polluter must pay” by providing adequate decommissioning funds at the time of reactor closure for prompt dismantlement, not prolonged delay sixty years into the future as the current regulatory options provide. The real cost of decommissioning radioactive reactors and cleaning up contaminated sites is emerging as a huge and long hidden subsidy in avoided cost that has artifically priced  atomic generated electricity. Limited Liabiity Company (LLC) restructuring must  now be viewed as the prelude to corporate malfeasance to shift the burden of decommissioning cost shortfalls from the parent company and their shareholders to the public. In order to ensure that decommissioning  and its financing is a transparent process in the best interest of public health and safety, civil society must have meaningful participation in a regulatory approval process that includes a detailed site-specific decommissioning plan and a supplemental environmental review. The decommissioning plan needs to be informed with cost specificity at all of its phases.  Even then, decommissioning is likely to remain a financial iceberg where much more cost remains below the surface literally in ground and water contamination cleanup costs. As the States of Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York have already identified by historical experiece, the corporate parent should be required to secure a financial guarantee on 200% of these best decommissioning cost estimates.  Given that no nuclear power plant decommissioning process is complete as long as radioactive waste remains on-site, licensees and parent companies need to be held accountable for the cost of transfer of highly radioactive spent fuel currently in vulnerable tightly-packed wet storage pools into qualified dry casks in hardened on-site storage (HOSS) as the 5-year minimum cooling time period for irradiated fuel permits.

Just after the Paris symposium, NEA released its April 2016 report “Costs of Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants.”  The NEA report provides its analysis of industry’s nuclear power plant decommissioning costs and funding practices. It inadvertently reveals however that after more than six decades of nuclear power operations, there is no global decommissioning policy or strategy to ensure that the radioactive legacy of shuttered reactors and the cost to public health and safety will not be borne upon future generations that receive not one watt of benefit.



NRC "Way Too Cozy with Vermont's Nuclear Plant"

The Waterbury Record in Vermont has editorialized against Entergy Nuclear's raiding of the Vermont Yankee atomic reactor's decommissioning fund to inappropriately pay for high-level radioactive waste management. The editorial reports that Entergy is attempting to raid $225 million from the $665 million decommissioning fund, to use for high-level radioactive waste management. The editorial cheered the State of Vermont's lawsuit against the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for allowing this to happen, and urges the court of appeals to do the right thing.


Raided Palisades' decommissioning fund $100 million short of minimum dismantlement/clean-up price tag

Entergy Nuclear's Palisades atomic reactor, located on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Covert, MIAs admitted by Entergy to NRC on March 30, 2015 (see page 17 & 18 on the PDF counter), the Palisades atomic reactor's (photo, left) decommissioning trust fund is $100 million short of the minimum total needed.

Palisades has in hand only $384 million, of the $485 million needed.

That $485 million price tag must be taken with a grain of salt, as a significant underestimate. Palisades has suffered decades of radioactive leaks -- as recently as March 19, 2015 (a 100 gallon "migration" of tritium from degraded steam generator tubes, ultimately into the environment). This lingering radioactive contamination will add substantially to Palisades' low-balled decommissioning price tag estimate.

What makes this decommissioning fund shortfall all the more objectionable is the fact that in 2007, the fund was raided by the previous owner, Consumers Energy, and Entergy, as part of the sales agreement. The Michigan Public Service Commission blessed this unacceptable raid. Around $100 million went into Consumers Energy's pockets. Around $100 million went into Entergy's pockets. And around $100 million was refunded to ratepayers -- apparently to "justify" the raid, and/or to quiet dissent.

But now ratepayers will get to pay back into the decommissioning trust fund, to compensate for the raid. And Entergy, as well as NRC, are justifying the continued operation of the dangerously age-degraded Palisades reactor, at least in part, on the need to rebuild the raided decommissioning fund!


Entergy threatens to simply walk away from VY decommissioning after 60 years!

An aerial view of the known extent of the tritium contamination in soil and groundwater at the VY site, on the banks of the Connecticut River in southeastern Vermont.Entergy Nuclear is infamous for its arrogance. Now, reports the Associated Press, the country's second biggest nuclear utility, with one less than a dirty dozen atomic reactors in its fleet (Vermont Yankee -- VY -- was forced into permanent shutdown on Dec. 29th under intense public pressure), is threatening the State of Vermont to simply walk away from the radioactively contaminated site after 60 years, if the decommissioning is not yet completed.

The threat was made by Entergy Vice President Michael Twomey, to State of Vermont legislative committees. Under the Orwellian policy "SAFSTOR," the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allows nuclear utilities to simply sit on permanently shutdown reactors, without doing radiological clean up or facility dismantlement.

Entergy only has about $666 million in the VY decommissioning fund -- only about half what is projected to be needed. The agreement to not require Entergy to put a single penny into the decommissioning fund, from when it took over VY in 2002 till now, was approved by Gov. Howard Dean's (D-VT) administration, well over a decade ago.

Entergy's plan is to keep the $666 million invested in the stock market, so its value can grow to the needed $1.25 billion. What happens if the money is lost in another stock market crash, Entergy is not saying.

The dilemma is, if Entergy withdraws funds from the $666 million decommissioning kitty, that lessens the investment in the stock market, which it hopes will double the funds value.

The State of Vermont is urging Entergy to begin VY decommissioning within 15 years. But Entergy has given no date certain for when decommissioning will begin. It has only pledged to transfer high-level radioactive waste from the storage pool to dry cask storage by 2020.

But Entergy has also reneged on its pledges in the past, such as to honor the State of Vermont's decision on approving or disapproving VY's 20-year license extension. When, in Feb. 2010, Vermont State Senators voted 26 to 4 to block VY's license extension, Entergy reneged on its agreement, and instead sued Vermont in federal court! In fact, Entergy V.P. Twomey just threatened to sue the State of Vermont again, this time over decommissioning liabilities after the 60-year SAFSTOR cut off!

Despite its plan to continue to store high-level radioactive waste in the pool till 2020, Entergy is seeking to end its support for emergency preparedness in the 10-mile radius surrounding VY, as early as next year. The State of VT is pressing for Entergy to maintain emergency response capability, so long as irradiated nuclear fuel remains in the storage pool.

The $1.25 billion price tag on decommissioning is itself dubious. Just a few days ago, the State of Vermont announced that hazardous Strontium-90 -- a bone seeker -- has been discovered in VY monitoring wells. The extent of the tritium contamination revealed in 2009 and 2010 is likely not comprehensively known (see photo, above left). That, and the presence of such radioactive hazards as Sr-90 in the soil, groundwater, and Connecticut River sediment contamination, could easily mean the decommissioning price tag will significantly increase.


Environmental coalition meets NRC's "Nuclear Waste Confidence" DGEIS public comment deadline

Environmental coalition attorney Diane Curran

(Mark Cooper of Vermont Law School, expert witness on behalf of this environmental coalition, has estimated that storage and disposal of irradiated nuclear fuel could add $210 to $350 billion onto the costs of nuclear-generated electricity in the U.S. In addition, the once-per-century replacement of dry cask storage across the U.S., assumed by NRC in its "Nuclear Waste Confidence" DGEIS, would add another $100 billion per replacement, Cooper estimates. Cooper asserts that NRC cannot ignore such "staggering" costs in its EIS on the costs and risks of generating irradiated nuclear fuel in the first place -- that is, approving new reactor construction and operating licenses, and old reactor license extensions.)

An environmental coalition of nearly three dozen groups, including Beyond Nuclear, has submitted comments on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) "Nuclear Waste Confidence" Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS). The coalition is represented by a team of attorneys, including Diane Curran (photo, left) of Harmon, Curran, Spielberg, and Eisenberg, LLP, Washington, D.C.; Mindy Goldstein, Director, and Jillian Kysor, Fellow, Turner Environmental Law Clinic, Emory University, Atlanta, GA; and Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director, and Deborah Brancato, Staff Attorney, Riverkeeper, Ossining, NY.

The coalition is also represented by a team of expert witnesses, including Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Takoma Park, MD; David Lochbaum, Director, Nuclear Safety Project, Union of Concerned Scientists, Chattanooga, TN; Dr. Gordon Thompson, Executive Director, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, MA; and Dr. Mark Cooper, Senior Research Fellow for Economic Analysis, Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, South Royalton, VT.

The environmental coalition's comments, as well as its expert witnesses' declarations, have been posted on the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) website, as well as at the bottom of a press release featuring the work of Dr. Cooper on the economic costs of irradiated nuclear fuel management. The coalition's comment and expert witness declarations are also posted at the NIRS website.

Curran, on behalf of three environmental groups (Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Riverkeeper, and SACE), in alliance with Natural Resource Defense Council, as well as four state attorneys general (CT, NJ, NY, and VT) won a landmark legal victory on June 8, 2012. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that NRC had to carry out an environmental impact statement on its "Nuclear Waste Confidence" policy and rule, including the on-site storage risks of irradiated nuclear fuel in pools and dry casks. The Dec. 20th public comment deadline on the DGEIS is a part of that court-ordered process.