Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Summer 2014 Update on Nuclear Decommissioning

A major milestone is about to be met on the decommissioning (decom) of the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant, where the final pieces of the reactor vessel are now being cut up, and will be packaged and shipped off by this November.  After some 2000+ shipments of mid-level radioactive materials to Texas and Idaho, all that will remain is “lower-level” contaminated concrete, piping, and soil, which will be gone by 2019.  The decom project is on schedule and on track with its estimated $1+ billion price tag.  After 2019, the site will be contamination free, and all that will remain will be 6 dry casks containing the high-level spent fuel stored in a secure bunker.

The experience and implications from Humboldt Bay translate directly to what is being planned at several locations in the US, where shut down nuclear reactors await dismantlement.  The just released decommissioning plan for the twin reactors at San Onofre in southern California, a power plant 30x larger than Humboldt Bay, is currently estimated to cost $4.4 billion, and take 20 years to complete.  I believe this is overly optimistic, coming from an industry that has historically underestimated everything they’ve planned and said.  Humboldt Bay decom costs went from $95 million when the plant shut down, to $380 million in 2004 when actual work began, to the current $1+ billion estimate.  Whatever the final figure, this cost explodes the myth that nuclear power is cheap, clean, and economically feasible.
With 105 reactors in the US needing eventual decommissioned in the next 20-60 years, no one knows what that actual total cost will be…$200 billion…$300 billion…half a trillion dollars?????  Costs in nuclear technology have always gone up.

Two major points need to be put in perspective.  In the few reactors that have actually been decommissioned, decom cost have more often exceeded actual initial construction costs.  These “back-end” expenses are not identified or quantified in the real, true cost of the nuclear electricity which is produced.  At Humboldt Bay, the decom price alone is about 20 cents/kwh for the 5 billion kwhs that were produced in the 13 years the plant operated.  That cost was not reflected directly on the ratepayers electricity bill 40 years ago, but has since been levied, and even today, and for the next 5 years, is being paid for by PG&E consumers who never used any of that nuclear electricity.  If decom costs were truly incorporated in the price tag of the two Vogle reactors currently being built in Georgia, the $14 billion subsidized capital investment would swell to $28 billion…$40 billion…$??????  Amortizing that cost over the 40-year life of the reactors would make that nuclear electricity very, very expensive.  Nobody is talking about that.  What the industry is doing is what it has always done in the past…claiming we need this cheap, clean source of electricity, and defraying well into the future the huge backend decom and waste storage costs, and basically letting our children and future generations deal with it.

The second issue deals with the 80,000+ tons of high-level wastes in the form of spent fuel stored all around the US.  The current strategy for storing this highly radioactive material involves moving the fuel rods from basic cooling swimming pools to air-cooled dry casks.  At Humboldt Bay, a bunker was built in 2004 at a cost of $10 million; the purchase and loading of six dry casks was $10 million each; and the security and maintenance costs since then have been about $10 million per year.  Thus, through 2025, spent fuel storage will approximate $270 million…just for the tiny amount at Humboldt.  No specific details have been released for San Onofre as to how many casks will be stored on site for the next 25…50…??? years, or the costs. The Federal government actually owns this material and is responsible for its ultimate disposal.  However, there is no place to put it, except to leave it on site!  For the past 30 years, a small fee was attached to the cost of nuclear electricity to pay for ultimate disposal.  In early 2014, about $30 billion had been collected into this Waste Fund.  Out of this, $15 billion has already been spent on the defunct Yucca Mountain project, and a federal court just ruled that the Fund, and its remaining money, was an absurdly ridiculous low amount to do anything, and ended the Fund and its collection. In 2003, Yucca Mountain was estimated to cost over $100 billion for construction and operation.  Thus, costs for what we are going to do in the future…whatever that will be...are unknown, and most likely will be very expensive.  And, it is now the fiscal responsibility of the federal taxpayers.

Putting all the spent fuel into dry casks is an enormous challenge.  At $10 million per cask, and estimated 6000+ casks needed for the volume of waste produced to date… we’re looking at $60+/- billion which you and I are going to pay for.  These casks are designed to last for 50-60 years.  Then what?  Re-cask with newer technology?  Move them to a central storage place?  Bury them in some underground vault?   That’s just for high-level spent fuel.  Add to all this the cost of cleaning up everything else associated with the nuclear power industry…uranium mining wastes, decommissioning and cleaning up the enrichment and fuel fabrication plants, and dealing with low-level radiation dumps (many of the old ones are leaky messes)…a trillion dollars????…all to be paid for by the taxpayer.  And the reality is that all this with no real positive benefit to society, other than the few jobs this cleanup industry creates.  It’s sort of like the trillions of dollars we spent building nuclear weapon systems we prayed we would never have to use.  Maybe we can’t afford health care for the poor and elderly, social security for our seniors, protecting our health from a toxic environment…but we, and future generations, will pay this bill.  Chernobyl and Fukushima have proven a mandate for it.

The definitive question is “why do we want to build more nuclear power plants, when renewables offer us a much cleaner, safer, cheaper, and sustainable future?”  The industry claims that the new generation of reactors and the so-called new modular reactors (many years from actual development and testing) would be cheaper, cleaner, and safer.  Again, another pipe dream.  Nuclear reactors will always produce radioactive wastes…basic laws of physics.  A lot of this new technology would rely on reprocessing, or “recycling” wastes; and leads us into the “breeder” plutonium type of reactors, which are dangerous on so many fronts.  This direction has been tried for over 50 years in many countries, and has proven to be very expensive, technologically infeasible, and actually produces more volumes of radioactive wastes, in more difficult to manage forms, than current reactors.  New reactors may be safer…but they can never be perfectly safe.  As for costs, again the industry claims new modular reactors will be cheaper to construct.  Since these technologies have never been built, and won’t even be tested until 2023 or beyond, the industry’s optimism is hard to believe.  And once again, in all this optimism, there is no discussion of the back end…decommissioning, waste disposal and storage, etc. 

Meanwhile, renewables are beginning to make tremendous headway into the production of electricity worldwide. The potential exponential growth and decrease in costs in solar and wind is being held back by the continued campaign of mis-statements, half truths, and narrow, shallow thinking of the big moneyed corporate interests and their political lackeys.  Eventually, it all boils down to the free market and to clean, safe, economical, and sustainable energy.  Renewables are beginning to at least become major players in this battle.

Here are a few pertinent references for the above discussion:

Feel free to ask me questions, ask for citations for my statements, and engage me in a meaningful discussion of these and any associated issues.  I welcome “old school” concept of people actually talking and learning from each other!

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