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Power The Almighty Buck United States

Funds Dwindle To Dismantle Old Nuclear Plants 315

Posted by samzenpus
from the what's-the-worst-that-could-happen dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The Associated Press reports that the companies who own almost half the nation's nuclear reactors are not setting aside enough money to dismantle the reactors, so many plants may sit idle for decades, posing safety and security risks as a result. The shortfalls in funding have been caused by huge losses in the stock market that have devastated the companies' savings and by the soaring costs of decommissioning. Owners of 19 nuclear plants have won approval to idle their reactors for as long as 60 years, presumably enough time to allow investments to recover and eventually pay for dismantling the plants and removing radioactive material. But mothballing nuclear reactors or shutting them down inadequately presents the risk that radioactive waste could leak from abandoned plants into ground water or be released into the air, and spent nuclear fuel rods could be stolen by terrorists. The NRC has contacted 18 nuclear power plants to clarify how the companies will address the recent economic downturn's effects on funds to decommission reactors in the future, but some analysts worry the utility companies that own nuclear plants might not even exist in six decades."
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Funds Dwindle To Dismantle Old Nuclear Plants

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  • by Qzukk (229616) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @06:59PM (#28875093) Journal

    Why don't nuclear reactors have to set aside the money before they're even allowed to build?

    They did. They just set aside the money in the stock market.

  • by cheesybagel (670288) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:05PM (#28875177)
    From the NRC [nei.org] website:

    Nuclear power plants are required by the NRC to put aside funds for their decommissioning during operations. Companies work with federal and state regulators to ensure enough money is set aside. These funds are not under the direct control of the companies and cannot be used for purposes other than decommissioning.

    It then lists the types of decomissioning funds in page 3. I assume the issue here is they put the money into an external sinking fund invested in a trust fund. Then the market bottom fell off. Ah, the wonders of capitalism.

  • by thereimns (1110955) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:20PM (#28875333)
    For some background on the Gundersens' work on the Vermont Yankee plant, see this story from the Burlington weekly from a few years ago: http://www.7dvt.com/2007/fission-accomplished [7dvt.com]
  • by dfenstrate (202098) <dfenstrate.gmail@com> on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:44PM (#28875561)

    As the article says, nuclear power plants keep dedicated funds for decomissioning those plants. These funds are in the stock market.

    The stock market took a beating.

    Greenpeace and other anti-nuke wackos found an opportunity to say idiotic things like:
    It's like a sitting time bomb. The notion that you can just walk away from these sites and everything will be hunky-dory is just not true."

    Speaking as someone who works at a nuclear power plant, uh, yeah, for various definitions of 'walk away', you can do just that.

    If by walk away you mean:
    1) Defuel the reactor, offload all fuel into the spent fuel pool.
    2) Drain all primary systems of water and process it (A daily occurance at any plant anyway)
    3) Maintain enough staffing to secure the facility and watch the THREE relatively small pumps and TWO heat exchangers required to keep the fuel safe until it can be safely stored in a dry cask.
    4) Store the dry casks on site until Yucca opens, or they can be re-processed.

    (While they will be guarded, these dry casks are not a significant security risk. Terrorists aren't running around with the heavy rigging equipment required to handle these casks, and they most certainly will never control any facility for the hours required to get any nuclear material.)

    That's the nuclear definition of 'walk away.' We take our jobs much more seriously than Greenpeace clowns take anything. They're a professional agitation group who currently only exists to generate enough attention to collect enough funds to continue to exist.

    You might have to keep some fans running in contaminated areas until they're cleaned up, but compared to actually operating a nuclear power plant, the safe long term shutdown of a plant requires minimal resources.

    I love this part too:
    Last week, British officials reported on a 2007 leak in a cooling tank at the decommissioned Sizewell-A nuclear plant. If the leak had not been promptly discovered, officials said, nuclear fuel rods could have caught fire and sent airborne radioactive waste along the English coast, harming plant operators or the public.

    The job of the people there is to promptly discover these sorts of things. There are loud alarms available to help them with just that. It's not a lucky happenstance that the leak was promptly discovered.

    What else?
    Sixteen more are being reviewed, and the commission expects to receive 21 more applications in the next several years. To date, the NRC hasn't turned down any license extensions.

    In case anyone was wondering, the reason the NRC hasn't turned down any license extension applications is two fold:
    1) The standards the plants have to meet are published, and not a secret.
    2) The NRC bills maybe $250 a man-hour for the thousands of hours required to review these applications.

    No utility is going to pay the NRC millions of dollars to review their application unless they're sure they meet the published NRC standards.

    and one more:
    Plant operators appear to benefit from NRC rules that don't require them to set aside money to store old nuclear fuel...

    because nuclear power plants pay ongoing fees to the federal government to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. $25 billion dollars have been paid so far pursuant to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 [cbo.gov] and the federal government only has the Yucca Mountain debacle to show for it.

  • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:47PM (#28875579) Homepage

    He could be working for any number of companies that operate power reactors. Or for any number of places that operate research reactors. Or for any number of consultants and analysts on the maintenance/modification of those reactors. Or for the companies that design, build, or do research on the design and construction, of those reactors. ("None being built in the US" != "none being built anywhere".)
     
    Then there is the DoE, in it's regulatory or research branches. NASA does reactor research as well. (And other branches are involved too... The EPA for just one example.)
     
    Then there's the biggie... The Navy's nuclear power program. Between the sub base, the naval shipyard, and the supporting contractors, there's probably a thousand or more within a few miles of me.
     
    The demand isn't large, but there's a lot more to the field than decommissioning existing reactors.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:50PM (#28875613)

    I currently work for a company that is under contract to decommission the Hanford Site KE Reactor by Sept. 31st, 2011. The money DOE is paying us with? The $1B Obama set aside in the ARRA specifically for this problem. If our company is successful/safe in the decommissioning of this first reactor, we will get contracts for a minimum of 9 more.

    The author has an agenda.

    Besides, it was in the DESIGN PLAN for the rectors to idle for 75 years after they are shut down, this is so the unspent plutonium has a chance to decay into something more stable. The only reason decommissioning is all of the sudden become a big deal is because of the change in perception of security that has come this decade.

  • by kspn78 (1116833) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:51PM (#28875617)
    I agree, I would rather not be 'inside' a crash, but it is a fact that Nuclear technology has not been able to develop due to fears that people have about radioactivity ect.
    Coal vs Nuclear (Take your pick of these articles)
    Coal evil: http://www.restoringeden.org/community/CreationVoice/january2009/coalash [restoringeden.org]
    Nuclear evil: http://www.cejournal.net/?p=410 [cejournal.net]
    There are issues (primarily with the Radioactive waste) but we still have what amounts to cira 1970/1980 Nuclear technology. pity that.
  • by Un pobre guey (593801) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:53PM (#28875637) Homepage
    Always remember: Nuclear energy generation is the cleanest and least polluting energy source, so this is a non-issue! Ask anyone here on Slashdot, they'll be more than happy to enlighten you. For example, just put the entire site into a breeder reactor and voila!. Not only is it cleaned up and recycled but it generates even more clean nuclear fuel to generate even more energy! Lather, rinse, repeat! Forever!
  • Re:Actually... (Score:2, Informative)

    by garyisabusyguy (732330) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @08:11PM (#28875791)
    The US Nuclear Navy has operated for nearly fifty years and the only two 'accidents' have been related to the submarines the reactors were in going down due to other factors. On the other hand, the Soviet Navy has managed to turn a large portion of the North Sea into a large radioactive experiment. As much disdain as the 'free marketers' love to throw at the government, we need to recognize that the US government is quite capable of handling complex projects with a great deal of safety.
  • Re:I'm surprised.... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @08:20PM (#28875911)
    And many times those contributions end up failing for the general public. To use your example, the government decided it would be smart to just give away land left and right to whoever made railroads, this lead to a bunch of people becoming filthy rich, buying competitors and ending up with a huge monopoly.

    Really, the only reason trains aren't really going anywhere is because they are out of the traffic and can be used like buses (subways, light rail, etc) and the fact the infrastructure is already built and doesn't require a ton of work.
  • by Un pobre guey (593801) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @08:43PM (#28876113) Homepage
    You are mistaken. They (the people who created the instruments that caused the disaster) sold them on down the line and made a great deal of money. Even the people in the bucket brigade that bought and sold the stuff were smart by any reasonable measure, including those who ended up holding the bad assets at the end. Part of American Capitalism is the glorification of risk taking, and these people took risks. Ultimately, many or most of the big players were bailed out with public money, or with fiat money from the Fed which will ultimately be paid for one way or another by the general public. One can only wonder if there was an expectation of bailout, which emboldened them even more. They were smart alright. The idiots are the people who borrowed money they couldn't possibly pay back.

    If I may, I would politely suggest that you not view Capitalism or any other model of political economy as an ideology that needs to be defended against some other ideology, as if it were a religion.

    Capitalism per se has serious flaws, as do all other alternatives, and the variant that is practiced in the U.S. is flawed to the point of barbarism.
  • by dfenstrate (202098) <dfenstrate.gmail@com> on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @09:17PM (#28876363)

    That's a fair question. I'm not a finance guy but I'll answer to the best of my ability.

    Finance cost: 0. Everthing should be paid for. Capital costs required to maintain or even replace three pumps, two heat exchangers, and the associated piping should be minimal.

    Land use & taxes: ~$100,000 (guess) Whatever property taxes are. Varies from zero to millions for an active nuclear power plant. The facility would not generate any profits, so property taxes would be the only ones applicable.

    Utilities: less than $325,000 / year (Assuming 1,000 hp in total pump power, based on the required pumps installed in my plant. In reality, much smaller pumps would be required to cool just the fuel, and would be installed as the first-year savings would pay for them entirely.)

    Staffing: ~$1.6 million per year. (assuming 3 technicians at all times, 5 crews required for 24 hr coverage, $80,000 a year salary, + 1/3 for benefits & taxes.)

    Security: ~$1.6 million per year. (more people would be required than staffing, but Security guards are paid less than technicians, and the required number would vary with the plant layout. I'm assuming the high security area would be relatively small compared to the area required for an operating plant.)

    Equipment replacement & expendables: ~$100,000 a year, average, high side guess.

    Insurance: $250,000 a year, Wild-ass guess. Everything is so over-built, and the insurance companies visit us frequently to evaluate their risk, so I doubt it would be much more than that.

    That adds up to about $4 million. As per the nuclear industry standard, I've probably vastly overestimated everything.

    If you use a time value of money calculation ending 60 years out, given a 6% rate of return (from the article), assume $0 value at the end, paid quarterly, then about $64 million dollars should do the job.
    (calculator here. [zenwealth.com] )

    That doesn't account for inflation, but since i've probably guessed high on everything I'm not going to feel too bad about that.

    Further, after two decades, all your fuel can go into dry cask storage, changing your yearly utility cost down to maybe $10,000 a year for lights and air conditioning.

    This would also reduce the staffing required on site even further. Purchasing the canisters and the concrete bunkers to store them in will be expensive, but let's assume that the savings on utilities and personel for the remaining 40 years will cover this as well.

    So, there's a rough answer for you: A $64 million dollar fund should be sufficient to maintain a nuclear power plant safely shut down for 60 years.

    Now if you want to wipe the power plant from the site completely, that will cost you hundreds of millions of dollars, and the article talks about that. Simply shutting it down and maintaining the fuel safely won't cost nearly as much.

  • Re:I'm surprised.... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @09:20PM (#28876375) Homepage

    btw the statement quoted above is a lie. You are a liar, antirelic. Including the catastrophes in the accounting is precisely what nuclear proponents don't do (didn't you get the memo?) because of the obvious. Luckily for you and them, as it turns out, human life doesn't really have much value if its not yours.

    You're a liar, Mr. AC, or just an ignorant retard, because you apparently have no clue how many people die mining coal [typepad.com]. Not so many per year in a country like the U.S. (compared to how many in modern times for nuclear), but still thousands per year in China, which is how things were not that long ago even in the 1st World. Have more people died mining coal than have died as a result of nuclear power, even counting those killed intentionally by atomic bombs? Yes.

    But yes, those human lives don't have much value since you had no clue they existed.

    If you only count accidents, then the total deaths from nuclear power is less than a single year of coal mining in China, or just a few years of mining in the U.S. in the period when the nuclear disasters occurred. In the year Three Mile Island occured, the second worst accident ever, more people died mining in the U.S. than died from the incident. Yes that includes long-term health effects, which coal mining isn't very good for either if you didn't know.

    It's not the greatest comparison ever, since ultimately what matters is modern safety standards in the country in question (the U.S. in this case). It is a true comparison though. And you'd still be very hard-pressed and hard-tarded to suggest that nuclear power is more dangerous than coal power today.

  • by beefnog (718146) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @09:29PM (#28876445)
    Having grown in in Richland, WA, attended Richland High School (home of the Bombers), and worked in the nuclear fuel production industry, I find it alarming that so many people are hilariously ignorant about nuclear power. As a child I actually got to tour the Columbia Generating Station and put my hand in the secondary loop water as it fell down the cooling tower. Nuclear power generation is far safer than any of you have been lead to believe.

    For those that choose to use the Hanford nuclear reservation as a point of argument against nuclear waste, well, you're half right. Almost all of the unfathomably dangerous substances located there are from nuclear WEAPON production.

    For the energy needs of the current and future world, our two forseeable tools are nuclear power and hydro-electric. Nobody likes nuclear because of NIMBY syndrome. Nobody likes hydro-electric because it makes entire ecosystems disappear. Yeah, Eastern Washington has one of the largest dams in the nation as well. Coal, natural gas, and oil are only kept alive because economic powers far greater than you or I want to exhaust the supplies before they start splitting atoms.
  • Re:I'm surprised.... (Score:5, Informative)

    by antirelic (1030688) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @09:36PM (#28876487) Journal

    I dont normally replied to anon but you make my point for me.

    "human life doesnt really have much value if its not yours." The war cry of the communist/socialist/environmentalist elitist. Rail against everything. Decry every solution as "inhumane", all the while proposing fantasy ideas that have no merit or foundation in reason. I add in the catastrophes to make a "clear" point. I grew up in the coal mining regions of the USA. Care to take a shot at the statistics on "Black Lung" alone?

    Between 1987 and 1996, 14,489 people died from "Black Lung". Care to guess how many people, world wide who died from Nuclear power during that same time period? Since 1990, more than 20,000 people have died from black lung. http://www.courier-journal.com/cjextra/blacklung/index.html [courier-journal.com]

    Counting bodies isn't as abstract as counting parts per million of carbon in the air, or closely guarded computer models predicting weather patterns... Its fairly simple.

    Even the most wacky, statistics skewing websites in existence cannot logically link nuclear power ALONE to being a dangerous source of energy. (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0131-03.htm . PS: A great article if you need a laugh, it links "power production" and "nuclear weapons production" into the same category, "nuclear energy and weapons programs up to 1989 will account for 65 million deaths". I'm sure 64 million of those are due to coal and gas energy sources.

    Anyway. Anonymous snipes backed by "emotion" of wanting to "save the people" is all you can expect from the left. When confronted with logic or even a touch of rational debate, lefties put on their super hero masks and start talking about "the value of life".

    Another group of people wanted to do whats best for the people too. They made gulags and had great leaps forward for the progress of man kind!

  • Re:Weird (Score:4, Informative)

    by BlueParrot (965239) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @10:46PM (#28876951)

    OMG breeder reactor! Yes, yes of course! Breeder reactors make nuclear waste a GOOD THING by using it for fuel, and producing LESS but MORE DEADLY waste! And when the breeder reactor's owners don't have the money to clean it up after its usefulness has run its course, well... lemmie read that wiki again... yes! yes of course! MORE breeder reactors will fix even that!

    Normally I would not be so blunt but quite frankly you started this one:

    a)It is clear you don't understand how the energy produced in a nuclear reactor correlates to the quantity of fission products produced.
    b)It is clear you have no idea about what properties breeder reactor waste have and how it compares to regular nuclear waste.
    c)It is clear you don't understand how breeder reactors work or what impact the destruction of the transuranics would have on repository capacity and requirements.

    For your ( and other's ) information this is how it works:

    Nuclear reactors produce energy by splitting nuclei. If they split relatively safe Uranium or the much more toxic and dangerous alpha emitters ( such as neptunium and plutonium ) does not really matter in energy terms since the energy produced in each fission is about the same. As it happens the elements that make nuclear waste storage problematic are all very heavy transuranics that are alpha emitters since these decay with a halflife of a few thousand years. The problem is that even thousands of years from now they produce enough heat to potentially melt the fuel rods if you don't allow sufficient separation between them. It is this heat that limits how much radioactive waste you can store in a given space.

    Thus if instead of splitting uranium you recycle and split these heavy transuranics you only end up with comparatively short lived fission products. It is true that the fission products initially has a higher radioativity than the transuranics, but the amount of fission products you get is exactly the same as if you ahd been splitting uranium. Thus by splitting the troublesome transuranics rather than uranium you end up with the same amount of fission products ( for a given amount of energy ), but you don't get any transuranics. I'll repeat that to make sure you got it:

    Regardless of reactor design the quantity of fission products is the same for a given quantity of energy. The energy produced is directly proportional to the number of fissions that occur (and consequentially the amount of fission products in the waste. However, while regular reactors produce long lived transuranics that need to be safely stored for thousands of years, breeders only produce the fission products ( the same quantity as regular reactors would produce for the same energy ) and thus their waste reaches the same levels of radioactivity as uranium-ore within approximately 300 years.

    Your assertion that the waste becomes more dangerous after recycled in a breeder reactor presumably refers to the fact that the radioactivity of the fission products is higher than that of the actinides. However as I mentioned above the quantity of fission products is no greater than it would have been for uranium. Also many of the fission products are so radioactive that they very rapidly decay to stable compounds that are not troublesome. Some of them have half-lives of minutes or even seconds, and after just a short period of storage they are less radioactive than what the actinides would have been. More importantly however is that the overall heat generation decreases rapidly and since you keep recycling the uranium you reduce the waste volume by almost a factor of 100. Because of these reductions in heat generation and volume, storing all the waste a power plant would produce within the 300 years it takes for breeder waste to decay is quite feasible to do on-site. Or in other words:

    A breeder reactor produces so small quantities of waste that it would take much longer to fill the plant's storage facilities than it would take for the waste to decay to safe

  • by dfenstrate (202098) <dfenstrate.gmail@com> on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @11:06PM (#28877065)

    I don't think a nuclear power plant "crash" would be worth it.

    Yeah, right on! Pennsylvania is totally uninhabitable 30 years after the Three Mile Island event!

    Seriously, they had a Loss of Coolant Accident with a core meltdown at TMI. That's as bad as it gets with western plants.
    No one died. No one was hurt. No one was exposed to a harmful level of radiation. It was a billion dollar industrial casualty. The adjacent nuclear unit continues to run with a great safety record.

    Three Mile Island exposed deficiencies in training philosophy and human factoring of controls and indications. These lessons have been learned.

    It also validated the basic western design philosophy. Multiple fission product barriers, negative temperature coefficient, negative void coefficient.

  • Re:Actually... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Korin43 (881732) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @11:46PM (#28877315) Homepage
    I agree with your point, but any company that works with the government cannot be called 100% free market. They make money doing something that the people may not willingly pay for.
  • by sketerpot (454020) <sketerpot.gmail@com> on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @11:52PM (#28877361)
    What's more, the melted fuel barely even scratched the surface of the pressure vessel. The pressure vessel acted as a heat sink, and a puddle of melted fuel is a subcritical configuration so the reaction stopped, and all that was left to deal with was decay heat. It simply was not physically possible for a meltdown in a TMI-style reactor to melt through the pressure vessel (it got almost 13% of the way through the PV), let alone get through the containment structure. There just wasn't enough energy in the system. Things have improved a lot since then, too, which is why we haven't seen any more of these weaksauce "disasters" at light water reactors.
  • Re:I'm surprised.... (Score:2, Informative)

    by deltharius (1451283) on Thursday July 30, 2009 @12:49AM (#28877715)
    Considering that there has been a sum total of 1 fatal reactor accident in the United States ever (at the SL-1 reactor [wikipedia.org] at the Idaho National Laboratory in 1961) with a total loss of life of 3 people. To compare, the US had 28 coal mining deaths in 2008 alone.

    So, yeah nuclear power causes slightly fewer deaths than coal mining. The number less is equal to the number of coal mining deaths every year except 1961.
  • Re:I'm surprised.... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Entropius (188861) on Thursday July 30, 2009 @01:31AM (#28877923)

    Stop railing against liberals.

    I'm a "liberal" in a lot of ways -- I am for a small military, public healthcare, strong public education, equal rights for homosexuals, addressing global warming, etc.

    I also support nuclear power.

    I support all of these things not because I am "ruled by my emotions", but because there are legitimate economic and scientific arguments for them. Not everyone on the left is a kneejerk type.

  • by MrKaos (858439) on Thursday July 30, 2009 @04:30AM (#28878831) Journal

    If we give up nuclear power now we're never going to find a solution. With no nuclear reactors there isn't going to be any incentive. And that doesn't get into the definition of a solution.

    That's a flawed premise. Not having commercial Nuclear power doesn't mean that you can't develop nuclear power. Commercial Nuclear power plants aren't testbeds for developing nuclear plant, they're for generating power.

    Yucca mountain and breeder reactors are both solutions, they just weren't acceptable solutions to people such as yourself.

    The DOE's own 1982 Nuclear Waste policy Act reported that the Yucca Mountain's geology is inappropriate to contain nuclear waste, and long term corrosion data on C22 (the material to contain the Pu-239 and mitigate the ingress of water - yet another Yucca problem) is just not available. Yucca mountain is not a suitable site because it is made of pumice and geological activity is evidenced by recent aftershocks of 5.6 within ten miles of a repository that is supposed to be geologically stable for at least 500000 years.

    How is a breeder program going to solve decommissioning a PWR and if Yucca's not acceptable to to the scientists, geologists and engineers compiling that report how is it an acceptable solution, as you put it, to people such as yourself?

  • by bjourne (1034822) on Thursday July 30, 2009 @05:09AM (#28879013) Homepage Journal
    See this [wikipedia.org] wikipedia article. Yes nuclear power is profitable, but it seems not much more so than clean energy sources such as hydro power or wind. Note also that the companies you refer to are partially or fully owned by the state and so the investments and the risks will taken with tax payer money anyway. They play on different terms than normal private companies which is why nuclear power investments makes sense for them. And even in Sweden the waste disposal problem is still unsolved.
  • Also thorium reactors didn't get any push during the cold war because you can't produce bomb making materials (plutonium) from them. So it didn't interest the military and at the time the military had a LOT of veto power in CIVILIAN reactor design. This is only now beginning to erode away.
  • by sampson7 (536545) on Thursday July 30, 2009 @09:48AM (#28881237)
    The key to realize here is that nuclear decommissioning funds are collected from electric ratepayers (i.e., you, me and everyone we know). When the electricity markets were deregulated in the 1990s, there was a real concern that nuclear plants would not be able to cover the costs of decommissioning. Most state public utility commissions imposed a non-bypassable stranded cost adder to your electric bill. A portion of each electric bill is thus deposited directly into the nuclear decommissioning trust fund. In a way, the fund is very much like a pension obligation. Companies are required to pay into the fund at a level specified by the NRC. When they are short, the company either has to step up its contribution or the state public service commission has to approve a greater contribution from ratepayers. Actually, I thought it was a very positive sign that the NRC has been so public and transparent at pointing out this potential problem.

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