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For aging nuclear reactors, a coming surge of shutdowns

For aging nuclear reactors, a coming surge of shutdowns

Posting in Technology

How safe will these ad-hoc radioactive dumps be?

When it first fired up its twin reactors in 1973, the Zion nuclear power plant in Illinois -- roughly 40 miles north of Chicago -- was the largest in the world. It was a stunning work of technology that supplied electricity to some two million homes. And it could have easily lived on into the new century. But in 1998, its parent company, the energy giant Exelon Corp, turned off its lights and shuttered the facility rather than face some costly upgrades.

For 12 years, Zion sat dormant on prime Lake Michigan shorefront as Exelon shelled out $10 million a year to maintain it and protect it with round-the-clock patrols of armed guards. By 2010, the facility had become home to drifting weeds and nesting falcons.

But that year, the federal government -- in an arrangement never tried before -- agreed to allow Exelon to transfer custody of the plant to EnergySolutions, a nuclear-waste storage outfit. The deal was worth a potential $1 billion in clean-up fees to EnergySolutions. It would be the largest nuclear power plant decommissioning ever undertaken in the United States. And it pledged to return the 375-acre site back to Exelon as grass and local shrubbery at the end of 10 years. From there it could be used for a park, condos or commercial purposes.

Following fears of meltdowns at Japan’s tsunami-ravaged Fukushima reactors in 2011, governments, utilities and private industry are eager to see the results of the deal. The storage of spent nuclear fuel and the dismantling and transportation of the reactor buildings takes technical skill and an innovative business plan, which could become a model for dozens of other nuclear plants being mothballed across the United States and around the world. And because President Obama refused in 2008 to re-open the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, the toxic byproducts in facilities need commercial resting places.

Today, despite some financial setbacks, EnergySolutions is ahead of its decommission schedule. And this October, it will begin the trickiest phase of its operation: moving the spent nuclear fuel from the wet storage pools in the reactor buildings to large concrete casks several yards away, where they will sit on a raised pad and remain indefinitely.

"The project is 42 percent complete," says John Christian, head of logistics, processing and disposal at EnergySolutions and the man who has overseen the project from the start. "We've completed all the site prep and started to make waste shipment from the site."

Ripping and shipping

Rows of ominous-looking concrete casks now rise on the gravel site. They stand 18 feet, 9 inches high, measure more than 11 feet in diameter and, when loaded, will weigh 157 tons each. They can withstand a tornado with winds up to 360 miles per hour, 4,000-pound wind-blown projectiles hurtling at speeds of 126 miles per hour, flooding, fire and even accidental tipping over. And they will soon house all 2.2 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel -- and another 80,000 pounds of radioactive material -- from the site.

In a process known as "rip and ship," the company will next tear down sections of the plant and move them by rail to its radioactive waste facility in Clive, Utah, where they will be dumped wholesale and entombed beneath rock and clay. EnergySolutions expects to ship some 500,000 cubic feet of material -- enough to fill 80 rail cars -- everything from concrete walls, pipes, wiring, machinery, desks and chairs, much of it contaminated with low-level radiation. But the hottest stuff -- the spent fuel -- will remain right where it is.

EnergySolutions has spent the past year removing Zion's fuel rods from a cooling pool and putting them into the canisters and casks for dry storage. The fuel, which is still about 400 degrees, can now be air cooled. Christian expects the company to begin moving the casks, via a heavy-haul rail, 100 yards south of the reactors by mid-October.

They will remain there until the feds come up with an alternative to Yucca Mountain. "Until we have a national repository open, this spent fuel has to stay where it is," says Lawrence Boing, a nuclear decommissioning specialist at Argonne National Laboratory’s nuclear engineering division. "The big question now is what do we do with this stuff?"

That question comes at a time when the entire global decommissioning market is about to expand like at no other time during our nuclear era. In the past three years since the tsunami wreaked havoc on the Fukushima plants, more than 20 reactors have been ordered closed at a potential cost of $26 billion to the industry. That’s a boon to businesses like EnergySolutions that can lead to decades-long contracts for tear-downs.

"A lot of plants are approaching 40 years old, and at some point the owners are going to look around and either build a new one or say 'This no longer makes economic sense,'" says Margaret Harding, a nuclear industry consultant based in Wilmington, Del.

She adds that the rise of cheap natural gas from shale fracking has put nuclear power on alert. On Aug. 27, energy company Entergy shocked both supporters and long-time opponents, who had fought for the closure of its 41-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor, among the oldest in the country. The company said it would do so, but not because of opposition. In the face of cheap gas, it was "no longer financially viable," an Entergy executive said.

While Entergy said it could take decades to decommission the reactor, which it plans to shut down next year, other nuclear sites are moving to decommission at a faster pace. The global trends publisher Research and Markets reported last year that it expects the decommissioning market to surge as more than half the world's reactors are expected to shut down by 2030, including 150 reactors across Europe, accounting for the bulk of them.

A financial challenge

In the United States, the people paying for these tear-downs are usually the electric utility's ratepayers. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires each power plant operator to set aside a fund to dismantle or permanently encase its reactors. When Zion powered up, ratepayers began paying pennies on every bill to go into its fund. It stands at $1 billion.

The Zion project has been a financial challenge for EnergySolutions. In March 2012, it revealed it had underestimated the costs by about $100 million -- an enormous amount considering the size of the decommissioning fund. A month later, it replaced its CEO for the second time in two years. The company's new president, David Lockwood, told analysts it had intentionally underbid the project, hoping the publicity would help it land other teardowns around the world, including in Germany, which hopes to shutter all of its plants by 2022. "We undertook Zion for strategic, not financial, reasons," Lockwood said.

Indeed, EnergySolutions has enormous technical skills. It helped tear down the Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee plants, and it is contracted to clean up roughly 53 million gallons of residual radioactive and chemical waste stored in 177 aging tanks at the nation's Hanford weapons site, home to the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is also currently decommissioning 18 reactors in the United Kingdom and is designing and installing the system that will decontaminate water from the Fukushima plants down to safe level. "EnergySolutions has remarkable experience dealing with far higher contamination, and in far more complicated processes at sites like Hanford, than you are going to see at a commercial nuclear site," says Harding, who has worked in this field for 30 years.

It also has the financial advantage of owning its own waste facilities. Its Utah site, where lower-level radioactive waste from Zion will be shipped, charges between $25 to $100 per cubic foot for waste storage. About 4 million cubic feet of Zion waste will be shipped there, monitored by 30 air-sampling stations, 90 ground-monitoring wells and 60 soil-sampling stations. This might cost another firm $400 million, a budget-breaking figure on a typical lump-sum project, but it's one that should pay off for EnergySolutions.

This past January, in a sign of its financial struggles, a $7 billion private equity firm, Energy Capital Partners, bought the company for $1.1 billion and took it private, paying a 20-percent premium at $3.75 per share, over the company's average closing share price. "For our company, this transaction enables us to continue to execute on our strategic plan by providing the investment capital to expand and to grow our business," said Lockwood, indicating a desire to see the company grow into the expanding market here and overseas.

The fate of Zion's dry storage casks is less certain. EnergySolutions will turn the casks and the Zion site as greenfield back to Exelon once it has completed decommissioning. Exelon could turn the area into a park. The casks are licensed for 20 years, with up to four year extensions. The NRC believes the fuel can be safely stored for at least 100 in casks. But the radioactive half life is 16 million years, with a defined hazardous life of 160 million years. The world will soon be dotted with these ad-hoc radioactive dumps.

Photo: Flickr/Rudolf Flcek

Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

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Kevin Gray

Contributing Writer

Kevin Gray is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Details and Men's Journal. Disclosure