Now that the Nuclear Age is coming to an end, we are entering The Age of Decommissioning. This will be the period during which all the nuclear reactors will be closed and torn down. Their sites will be cleaned of radioactive contamination — to the best of humankind’s capabilities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) arbitrary standards — and the radioactive materials and contaminants transported to other sites for temporary storage, permanent disposal, or both.
Other contaminated sites from the nuclear fuel chain — uranium mines and processing facilities, nuclear fuel fabrication plants, radioactive waste dumps, accident and spill sites, etc. — will also have to be cleaned up in a similar way. In short, the entire nuclear industry and infrastructure becomes the ultimate nuclear waste. (see our Radioactive Waste Page).
Currently, the most pressing decommissioning concerns are the nuclear reactors. In the U.S. utilities are announcing in droves that reactors are not economically viable, and cannot compete with cheaper natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency. They are pressing governments to either bail them out or face closure. Both are happening.
Any discussion of reactor closure sets the decommissioning clock in motion. Decommissioning raises a number of important issues beyond simply the tear-down tasks:
Funding and Fiscal Oversight: Utilities had an NRC requirement to set aside funds during the operating years of the reactor to be used for such site cleanup. However, lax and inadequate federal regulations have created a situation where not all reactor decommissioning accounts have been adequately funded. Even in situations where the funds seem to have been adequate, those same questionable regulations have not ensured that the monies used were or will be used properly and exclusively for decommissioning purposes. Current NRC regulations do not provide for transparent fiscal oversight of funds, nor require audits or adherence to U.S. standard accounting practices and principles.
“Just Transitions” and “Make Whole” Plans for Affected Communities: When reactors close, the local communities lose big: loss of direct and indirect jobs, huge loss of tax base which affects and disrupts essential public services and school districts, and decreased property values due to the continued presence of the spent-fuel on the site after reactor tear-down. No NRC or state regulations provide any relief or compensation for these hugely disruptive losses. Plans need to be in place prior to reactor closures to protect communities not only from the environmental effects of decommissioning, but also from the inevitable financial hardships communities will face during and after decommissioning. (See Just Transitions)
High-Level Radioactive Waste Storage – “HOSS”: As mentioned above, since the U.S. Department of Energy has not yet constructed a permanent disposal facility for the high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) in the form of spent reactor fuel, these wastes remain onsite indefinitely, negatively affecting local property values and local safety, security and environmental concerns. The HLRW is currently stored onsite in large, air-cooled steel and concrete containers called “dry casks.” Government and nuclear industry plans intend to create new, additional radioactive waste storage sites elsewhere – “centralized interim storage” (CIS) facilities, using dry-casks. Current proposals call for siting these facilities on Indigenous lands and/or low-income communities of color. Safe energy advocates call for the HLRW to remain onsite while providing the best possible safety configuration and technology possible: “hardened on-site storage.” (See HOSS fact sheets).
High-Level Radioactive Waste Transportation: At some point in time, whether to the nuclear industry’s CIS facilities, or to the final HLRW disposal facility, the HLRW must be transported by either truck, train or barge. However, the current unsafe conditions of the nation’s aging and decaying transportation infrastructure argue against this for the foreseeable future. Further, the shipping casks needed have not been licensed by NRC nor constructed in sufficient quantities to conduct this “Mobile-Chernobyl/Fukushima Freeway” migration of HLRW. Safe-energy advocates have argued for years for the need to improve and upgrade our roads and rails before moving any large amounts of HLRW anywhere, except in cases of imminent emergency.
High-Level Radioactive Waste Permanent Disposal: The U.S. is the only nuclear nation on earth that decided to socialize the financial costs of HLRW disposal. The U.S. Department of Energy was supposed to have an operational, permanent, deep-geologic HLRW disposal facility in operation in 1997. It failed to do so. As a result, HLRW continues to be created and is stored at all nuclear reactor sites, with no place to go currently. In a sense the nuclear industry has built a building with no bathrooms. In addition, nuclear utilities have successfully sued the U.S. Department of Energy (i.e. U.S. taxpayers) for failing to meet its 1997 obligation to take title to and permanently dispose of the HLRW.
One site was designated by Congress and President George Bush in 2003 to serve as the nation’s HLRW permanent dumpsite: Yucca Mountain, Nevada (See Yucca Mountain fact sheets). However, the site has serious flaws making it unsuitable for the safe, long-term, permanent disposal of HLRW. The site also sits on land belonging to the Western Shoshone First Nation, who contest the DOE’s right to operate the facility there as a violation of the 1868 Treaty of Ruby Valley with the U.S. government.
WHAT SAFE-ENERGY ADVOCATES ADVOCATE REGARDING DECOMMISSIONING:
- Strengthening NRC fiscal and financial regulations regarding decommissioning to include: revision of NRC funding requirements to ensure adequate funding; mandated retention of an independent auditor and annual and transparent audits available for public examination; and mandated use of U.S. accounting practices and principles.
- Creation of community-based, transparent independent public oversight boards at decommissioning sites.
- Use of HOSS to store HLRW onsite until the U.S. government provides an operating permanent deep-geologic disposal facility.
- Creation of “just transitions” funds prior to reactor closures, to be made available for community use when reactors close (See Just Transitions).
- Creation of a federal “make whole” fund for former reactor communities left with storing the HLRW from reactor operation.
- Creation of a fully- and adequately-funded, independent and science-based program to identify one or more deep-geologic sites for the permanent disposal of HLRW.
- Making massive infrastructure improvements on our nation’s road and rail system, in preparation for safe HLRW transportation.