Nest Eggs for Nuclear Plant Close Downs Fall Short

By Marlene Lang 

 

Think you are the only one who can't manage to set aside a nest egg? Don't feel lonely. Your neighborhood nuclear power plant may be busily creating a remedial savings plan of its own. 

Twenty-six plants nationwide showed shortfalls in the funds they are required by federal law to set aside for dismantling the reactors someday and cleaning up after themselves. The closely watched Three Mile Island plant was not on the shortfall list. 

Every year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission checks on the state of so-called "decommissioning funds." Most years there are only a handful of plants running short of having those estimated costs laid up, usually four or five one official said. Those billions set aside for close-down and clean-up don't just pile up under a mattress, of course; the money is invested in the stock market. According to an Associated Press report, some $4.4 billion in decommissioning funds was lost in the downturn, even as the actual costs for shutting down plants has risen by $4.6 billion because of (I love this part) rising energy costs – and labor costs. 

 

Illinois' Braidwood Station, Byron Station and LaSalle County Station, each with two nuclear reactors, and the Clinton Power Station are all on the NRC's shortfall list. What does it mean? 

At worst, it could mean another scenario like the DuPage River fiasco, a radioactive mess still in a mess, though it happened in 1973. Yes, 1973. 

Thirty-one years later, in 2004, the clean-up began along the West Branch of the DuPage River, west of Chicago,but the job is on hold again as the culprit company's bankruptcy languishes in court. 

With the worst of the radioactive residue still awaiting cleanup, legal scratch-and-claw is ongoing over who gets what from Tronox, Inc., and who will be financially responsible for the multiple millions the job will cost. At least $12 million of the yet-unpaid costs are expected to come from your federal government. 

The upside of the DuPage River debacle is that the cleanup HAS begun. 

Plans for fund-challenged nuclear power plants are to let them sit for about six decades, or however long it takes to accumulate the cash to safely dismantle those reactors and remove those nasty, hot and highly radioactive uranium fuel pellets. Sixty years, idle, is the time-frame estimate the NRC gave media earlier this month. 

Is it possible that the plant whose steam billows you see on your way to work each morning could do an impromptu morph into a radioactive waste dump, because the industry can't afford to shut it down and clean it up?  

The NRC assures us that this will not happen. We simply live in "extraordinary economic times," according to one spokesman, who noted that fluctuations in the decommissioning accounts are to be expected. Fluctuations. 

I was not consoled and remained uneasy at the thought of idle nuclear reactors waiting longer than my lifetime for cleanup money. 

I didn't need to be an engineer to wonder what happens when things get, well, rusty? But immediately I doubted my common sense; I asked if maybe we, the non-technical public, are ill-informed? Maybe even stupid? Maybe magical nuclear power plants don't actually rust; maybe they can rest safely forever on waterfronts near our homes and always safely contain that high-level radioactive fuel. 

I tried to believe, but I lacked what the nuclear industry and U.S. government policy refer to as: Waste Confidence. This is a doctrine – and I chose that word carefully – which says that the nuclear industry can continue to function and grow even though it has the big gaping problem of what to do with its own leftovers, being confident that a solution will be found. When common sense fails, there is always faith. 

In April, a small hole was discovered in a reactor containment wall of the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant near Pittsburgh, an aging facility that began operating in 1976 and is applying for re-licensing as we speak. A FirstEnergy company spokesman told media that "it appears the rust corroded the steel from the inside out." 

If it is any consolation, the hole was small; the size of a paper clip. 

What to do? The better question may be, what not to do. How about we listen to common sense and NOT build any more of these reactors until we have solved the great mystery of what to do with the waste, and can afford to pay for that solution? 

 

Marlene Lang is a freelance columnist for the SouthtownStar in Tinley Park, Ill. This column is used with permission from the Sun-Times News Group. Her column can be read at www.southtownstar.com.