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Power The Almighty Buck United States

Funds Dwindle To Dismantle Old Nuclear Plants 315

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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  • I know! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @06:50PM (#28875013)

    Why not let the government bail them out? That is what the government does, right?

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @06:53PM (#28875037) Journal

    We were touring the research reactor. The topic came up of how many students were majoring in Nuclear Engineering (or maybe it was just a specialization; not sure if it was actually a major). It was noted that there was exactly ONE student. Some people thought it was a strange major, since no plants were being built. Somebody else gave their $0.02 that the guy would be very much in demand--experts would be needed to dismantle plants.

    I wonder what that guy is doing now.

    • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwaterNO@SPAMgmail.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 Zak3056 ( 69287 )

      I wonder what that guy is doing now.

      Probably making a shitload of money working for Westinghouse, GE, Hitachi, or Mitsubishi, Areva on the design side, or maybe Bechtel, Shaw Stone & Webster, Black & Veatch, etc. on the construction side. All of the old nuke guys are hitting retirement age, and new nuke plants are coming [nrc.gov]. There's a significant talent shortage out there right now.

  • Same as gas stations (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NFN_NLN ( 633283 ) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @06:54PM (#28875045)

    Why is this treated any different then a gas station?

    Gas stations have to put a certain amount in escrow to allow for digging up the storage vessels and decontaminating. Why don't nuclear reactors have to set aside the money before they're even allowed to build?

    • 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.

      • They should have been required to set it aside in a financial vehicle where the value never drops below the amount invested.
        • Why not just require them to build reactors that will teleport themselves into the sun when it is time to decommission them.

          It's equally possible.

        • hah, there is no such financial vehicle

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by lennier ( 44736 )

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

        So nuclear power is perfectly safe as long as your underlying civilisation and economy doesn't do anything outside very narrow margins? And when things do go belly-up....?

        Yeah, that's what I thought, and that's why I'm cynical about nuclear safety. If the companies running this stuff can't even manage to cover normal operating and decommissioning costs which are scheduled and predictable... just how prepared are they for really catastrophic event

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Even if they had, the money may be worth less now, not enough to cover decommissioning costs. Personally, cynic that I am, I feel that this is just another case of the recession bogeyman being used as a catch-all excuse.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by cheesybagel ( 670288 )
      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 m

      • On the other hand, nuclear power plants are definitely in it for the long haul, so conservative index funds are probably their best bet. I'm willing to bet the 'not enough money' is using very conservative estimates for future earnings and very pessimistic values for how much it'll cost to decommission.

        Personally, I'd be building a bunch of new nuclear reactors to help compliment the other green sources. Nuclear power provides power when YOU want it, and it's very economical compared to the other green so

    • We have family friends who own a franchised gas station. Well they wanted to do some upgrades which meant new tanks; they purchased an old mostly hard case store. Well to make a long story short.

      You cannot out pace the ability of feel good but short sighted politicians to impose fees/levies that simply make some business unsustainable. In other words, their best option was to rotate each store into a sub type structure and then let the subs who were burdened by feel good laws to bankrupt.

      See, if they wan

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

      Gas stations have to put a certain amount in escrow to allow for digging up the storage vessels and decontaminating. Why don't nuclear reactors have to set aside the money before they're even allowed to build?

      Probably because back when they built 'em, decommissioning wasn't an issue.

  • Lease the plants, specifically the plant's basements. In an year or two the required payment will more than pay off the costs, proving be quite a substantial investment for everyone. While some will be quick to argue that such an act would leave the subterranean structures flooded with geeks oozing from radiation, the Army will soon discover that it has enough material to bottle up and send straight to Communist Russia.

  • by Hurricane78 ( 562437 ) <<deleted> <at> <slashdot.org>> on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:14PM (#28875271)

    What idiot came up with *that* idea?

    Hey, we got these huge savings that can help us when we need it. Let's put it into the stock market. Because that one is known for its century-long stability. And the value of our stocks will hold perfectly stable, even in the worst times.

    Protip: USE SOME FREAKING REAL GOODS! Gold, silver, countries, or things that go *up* in bad times. (Like bank manager incomes!)

    • Clarification: "go *up*".
      Not "blow *up*". (That's only for the times, when you have no savings left. ;)

    • Like many other things that we've done as a nation over the last few decades, we laid our best hopes on something that was far too easy to create artificial value in.

      And watch, it's going to happen again. With the Dow on the upswing we're going to see people dumping their interests into the hazard yet again but it is nothing more than a bubble based on employee cuts and assets sold for these businesses to stay afloat. The fat they gained in the last quarter will quickly be squandered if people buy into the
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Chris Burke ( 6130 )

      What idiot came up with *that* idea?

      Remember when our last President thought it would be a great idea to replace Social Security with individual investment accounts?

      Remember the people who were championing it? Maybe not the same people as those running the nuke plants, but they wore similar clothes and have similar titles. Is it really that surprising they'd think this way?

  • Unless the plants in question are simply too difficult/expensive to upgrade, nobody should be decommissioning any nuclear power plants!

    Cripes! Here we are looking at Cap & Tax legislation allegedly attempting to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and they want to decommission power plants that have among the lowest rates of CO2 emission?

    Makes one wonder if the goal isn't so much to reduce CO2 emissions as it is to raise the cost of electricity and raise taxes, along with making certai

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by maxume ( 22995 )

      Many of them are already on extended licenses. The issue is that steel gets weaker when exposed to radiation for decades, so to keep operating a plant, you have to rebuild much of it, which is pretty close to decommissioning it.

  • 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 jon_cooper ( 746199 ) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @07:24PM (#28875373)
    Looks like the nuclear industry looked at the big bank "too big to fail" strategy and liked it. Why bother cleaning up the mess when they can just let the taxpayers pay for the clean-up.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dfenstrate ( 202098 )

      Looks like the nuclear industry looked at the big bank "too big to fail" strategy and liked it. Why bother cleaning up the mess when they can just let the taxpayers pay for the clean-up.

      A temporary dip in the stock market, and you're talking like this is the subprime/default credit swap debacle. These decommissioning funds have been around longer than you have been, and being invested in the stock market, they took the same hit everyone else did. Fortunately they're in it for the long haul, not the next 'go

  • Fuel rods are replaced about every 18 months, and there are already systems in place for dealing with them. I don't imagine they would be the hard part of decommissioning; all the neutron-bombarded steel, lead, and concrete are the problem.
  • if only we had a way to reprosses the waste until it has a short half-life~

  • 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.

    What a ridiculous assertion of motive. That might be what is in the press releases, but the important part is that it is long enough for the current executives and boards of directors to not be adversely affected. With any luck, they'll get big bonuses for successfully kicking the c

  • by dfenstrate ( 202098 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `etartsnefd'> 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      What is the 60 year cost of maintaining these operations at a typical decommissioned site? I mean salaries, taxes, expendables, equipment maintenance, amortization, and renewal, land use, security, utilities, insurance, finance costs, etc.
      • by dfenstrate ( 202098 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `etartsnefd'> 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.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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 ch

  • 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: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bogjobber ( 880402 )
      Just because there are issues with nuclear (and despite your strawman, nobody with knowledge of the subject thinks there isn't) doesn't mean it isn't the most effective and clean option we have to meet our energy needs. How much do you have to spend to clean up a decommissioned coal plant? How many environmental cleanups and Superfund sites are from coal power plants and their waste?
  • Capitalism is like any other tool in that in the hands of idiots it can be deadly.

    When I read articles like this SlashDot entry - or just look around me at America - I can only conclude that our corporate culture's reliance upon "networking" and "interpersonal skills" (i.e., office politics) to select leaders is flawed in that it yields an overabundance of idiots.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Capitalism is like any other tool in that in the hands of idiots it can be deadly.

      As we found out last year, Capitalism in the hands of very smart people can cause worldwide havoc. So, in summary, Capitalism in the hands of both idiots and very smart people can be deadly. So, why are we using it again?
  • How can the "investments recover" on a project that currently has, and will continue to have, negative revenue? Who is investing in it?

    Or do they mean that nuclear plant money is invested in other stocks (which would be irresponsible as hell)?
    • I don't understand why we *allow* Nuclear power operators to get into such a situation? If anyone wants a license to build a new plant (and this should have been instituted decades ago), why don't we estimate the decomissioning costs, demand like 40 percent up-front as part of the investment to even *get started*, and then every year it's in operation, have part of the revenue go to the 'clean-up fund'? That way, if the company goes under after 30 or 40 years, we've *already got the money* (or at least, a s

  • by MrMista_B ( 891430 ) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @09:02PM (#28876247)

    Hey, I have this machine that boils water for free, and makes money.

    If I turn it on.

    Which I'm not going to do - instead, I'm determined to dismantle it, but it costs too much to do so. ...

    Anyone else not see how fucked up the idea of dismantling nuclear plants is?

  • When coal is such a no-no that our president has said he wants to "necessarily" bankrupt them with red tape and taxes, why would we de-com any nuclear power plants?

    I don't have to tell most of the audience here that it's carbon-free (as if that mattered) and that the waste trail has been cleaned up significantly, as well as being just about the cheapest form of electricity we can find.

    And there is ****19**** of them shut down now?

    • Could it be that some of those older plants are based upon very early designs, which aren't as economically competitive with other sources of energy, and in particular, other nuclear plants? Maybe those plants had design flaws which didn't necessarily make them *dangerous*, but made them unprofitable? I don't know if that's the case, but my *very basic understanding of economics* says that any business which is making money keeps running, and any business which has been shut down was not making money. Or,

    • by Burdell ( 228580 ) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @09:54PM (#28876629)

      Because a nuclear reactor doesn't last forever. The steel and concrete (and the steel reinforcing structure inside the concrete) absorb a lot of neutrons over the years, and that weakens them. Now, you could replace it all, but that costs as much as (or more than) building a new reactor in a new location and shutting the old one down (especially when you consider the changes in technology over the life of the reactor).

      Now, in some cases, it may be possible to build a new reactor on an existing site next to the old one, but that is touchy (lots of heavy construction == lots of shaking of the ground == sometimes cracked walls in nearby structures). That would save on upkeep for the shut-down reactor, as things like the security and technical staff can be shared between facilities.

      Even fusion produces neutrons that will limit the life of the reactor (if someone could ever build a net-power-producing one).

  • 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: (Score:3, Funny)

      by bloobloo ( 957543 )

      They let you put your hand in the secondary water in the cooling tower? That's horrendously reckless.

      There could have been Legionella in there.

  • Big Lies (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TomRC ( 231027 ) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @10:47PM (#28876971)

    "During the past two years, estimates of dismantling costs have soared by more than $4.6 billion because rising energy and labor costs, while the investment funds that are supposed to pay for shutting plants down have lost $4.4 billion in the battered stock market."

    Labor costs have risen in the last two years? Really? I thought we were in a recession with nearly 10% unemployment?
    Energy costs? Oil is now back down to 2005 levels. Natural gas hasn't been this cheap since 2002.
    If those are really their excuses, they should be jumping on the opportunity to decommission NOW, before prices go back up!

    And as to them losing money in the stock market - boo hoo. They could have put the funds into inflation protected treasury notes, but they wanted the extra profits to reduce how much they had to pay out. They gambled, they lost, they should have to pay up. If they can't - we have bankruptcy laws just for them (which we should have immediately applied to the banking mess too). Or they could take out a nice fat loan - interest rates are pretty low, I hear.

    I'd love to say I can't believe they're getting away with this - but given recent history of forgiving the villains and putting the burden on the taxpayers and individual investors, I just can't muster disbelief any more.

  • Told You So (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Wednesday July 29, 2009 @11:26PM (#28877207) Homepage

    That's exactly what I said the other day (and got slammed for) in the "first new nuke plant in US" story that was so widely cheered here.

    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1310417&cid=28775389 [slashdot.org]

  • 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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