Safety and Sureties at Zion

North of Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the largest demolition and clean-up projects in the history of nuclear power is underway. The Zion two-unit nuclear power plant, which was shut down 14 years ago, is being decommissioned, and people have questions.

How can the public be assured that the job is done right? What will happen to the land after the cleanup is finished? What is the NRC’s role in the project?

The NRC’s role is focused: our job is nuclear safety and security. NRC safety rules govern nearly every aspect of the project, from the demolition of piping, buildings, and equipment, to the packaging and shipment of rubble. ZionSolutions, the licensee responsible for the project, must follow strict safety procedures and provide robust site security. Every step of the way, NRC inspectors will be onsite to independently review the work done at Zion to make sure that the public, workers and the environment are protected.

Protecting people and the environment during the Zion project will cost money, of course. So, NRC rules require that enough money be set aside to do it safely. About $900 million has been set aside for that purpose.

Some have asked whether the NRC has any role in deciding how leftover money would be spent if the project is completed for less. While other authorities might have something to say about such a decision, the NRC would not, because Congress has not given the NRC that role. Rather, the NRC’s focus is strictly on making sure that enough funds are in place to complete the job safely.

Once the job is done, the site will be suitable for whatever use the property owner chooses to make of it. The NRC will still have a role to play, though, because the radioactive spent fuel that accumulated during the years Zion was up and running will continue to be safely stored on a small portion of the property until a permanent disposal facility is ready.

Some people may not realize that spent fuel has been safely stored at Zion for years in a large, protective pool. That fuel will eventually be moved into NRC-approved dry storage casks on the Zion site. NRC experts will perform inspections of the fuel movement to make sure that it’s done safely. After that, NRC will continue to periodically inspect the safety and security of the storage casks for as long as they remain on site.

From the beginning of the Zion decommissioning project to the end, the NRC will be there to protect people and the environment.

Jared K. Heck
Regional Counsel & Government Liaison Team Leader

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

8 thoughts on “Safety and Sureties at Zion”

  1. Mr. Heck,
    Thanks for taking your time to reply to my questions, yes you answered many of them, but a few could use a little clarification.

    If you know, is ZionSolutions the firm that employees the security people, part of Exelon or the company that now has the license for the facility? The reason I ask is because if the nuclear companies have to pay the “highly trained” force I’m guessing that is going to run into some serious money invested on a site that isn’t bring in any money, especially if there is no end in sight of how long the force will have to stay to guard the spent fuel, 10,000 years is a long term investment. This will create a situation where the companies will try to keep these plants running long beyond what a reasonable person would consider safe.
    You say that these plants can run well over 40 years, have you had a chance to read the scathing report that the Associated Press released yesterday about NRC oversight of these “safe” aging plants? If not it can be found here.

    It is the culmination of a yearlong investigation by the AP. It says among other things that when a nuclear plant can no longer meet the safety requirements the NRC simply eases the safety requirements until the plant can pass. Some plants still can’t pass after the standards have been lowered several times. Can you look at the pictures in this article and say that time has no effect on the operations at the plants the NRC oversees? One commenter on this article said that when he heard about nuclear plants he pictured them as being in pristine condition and well taken care of, he then said the pictures of US nuclear plants look like something dug up from an archeological site in Rome.

    So the liability for the nuclear companies is capped at $375 million and there is a single pool of $11.6 billion that all plants must share if there is an accident. Do you think this creates an atmosphere where plant operators might take shortcuts? If the insurance company is picking up the $375 million I certainly think the nuclear companies might skip some safety measures, after all their liability is capped and they have to think about the bottom line for quarterly profits. I personally think the companies should be liable for everything, with the whole company on the chopping block if something goes wrong. And do you think it would be wise to make them pay more into this fund, correct me if I’m wrong,b ut I believe the cost estimate for Fukushima is now well over the $300 billion mark, for a mild accident. $11.6 billion plus $375 million, by my calculations does not equal $300 billion. Again thanks for your time and any response you can give about the cost to the companies and the AP report about the NRC lowering standards to keep plants running and how this relates to the assertion that 40+ year old plants are safe.

  2. I would have to agree that the site should be used for a similar facility. I mean it only seems logical and should save taxpayers some money as well. I think as far as safety it would be good as well!

  3. The $900 million was set aside by Exelon, not U.S. taxpayers, specifically for the decommissioning of the Zion plant. All U.S. nuclear power plants are required by the NRC to maintain such decommissioning funds. Exelon collected much of the $900 million by charging its Illinois customers a fee over many years, which required the approval of state regulators. The fees and electricity rates charged by Exelon and other generators of electricity are not regulated or set by the NRC.

    Under NRC rules, each nuclear power plant and spent fuel storage facility is required to have a highly-trained security force. The security force at Zion is a private force under contract with ZionSolutions, the NRC license holder for the Zion decommissioning project. The Zion security force is not funded by U.S. taxpayers.

    The NRC’s original decision to license the plants to operate for 40 years was not based on the assumption or concern that the plants would no longer be safe to operate once the license expired. Nuclear plants can safely operate for well beyond 40 years and must undergo a thorough set of inspections and licensing reviews by NRC before a license extension is granted.

    Nuclear power plants are responsible for paying for a nuclear accident, but their liability is capped by the Price Anderson Act. The NRC requires that each licensee buy the maximum amount of private insurance that is available to cover the costs of a nuclear accident, which amounts to about $375 million per plant. On top of that, each licensee must pay into an indemnity pool. That pool of money, which currently amounts to roughly $11.6 billion, would be available to cover damages from a nuclear accident if the site’s own insurance were exhausted. If all of the insurance and indemnity funds required by the Price Anderson Act were exhausted, then damages would have to be satisfied from some other source, possibly through a Congressional appropriation.

    At Zion, spent fuel will be stored onsite at the completion of decommissioning. The storage facility will be licensed by the NRC, and the license holder will be responsible for providing security as long as the facility remains.

    Currently, there is no licensed permanent storage facility for spent nuclear fuel. At one time, Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada, was proposed as a permanent storage site, but the Department of Energy has decided not to pursue that project. The project is now subject to a complex legal controversy involving DOE, NRC, and several states, and is currently pending in federal court.

    I hope I have answered your questions.

    Jared Heck

  4. Thomas – you have a few misconceptions and misunderstandings:

    “have their licenses renewed long beyond what was considered safe when the plants were first constructed”

    The 40 year initial licensing period, established in the 1970s, was based more on accounting depreciation standards for the familiar fossil plants of the time. With advances in materials science and component age management, led by EPRI and others, it was found that plant life extension was a reasonable option.

    “I know that the utilities are not responsible for paying for a nuclear accident. what was that law that limits the amount they have to pay again”

    That is incorrect. The Price Anderson Act (for details see the Wikipedia article) puts them on the hook for $12.6 billion. Even after TMI the taxpayers were liable for nothing.

    “Is there a point where the US taxpayer steps in and starts to pay for the security of the fuel? This cost should be factored in when any cost comparison of power generation methods is undertaken, I’m not so sure it is now.”

    Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, ratepayers benefiting from nuclear generation pay a tiny premium that goes to fund used fuel storage activities. There is currently over $30 billion in the fund.

    “Also one more question, what is the status of that “permanent storage” facility you were talking about? When can we expect it to be ready, 2012,2014,2016?”

    You will have to ask Sen. Harry Reid when he plans on retiring.

  5. NRC,
    I was looking at this post and a few questions sprang to mind. Who set aside the $900 million, was it Exelon/EnergySolutions or the US taxpayers? And if it was the US tax payers did they receive any profits from the plant while it was running?

    Also, I’m assuming that the spent fuel had to be guarded by a small army of security personnel the whole time that the plant has been shut down and not making any money. Who paid them was it Exelon or the NRC/US tax payers?

    This brings up a vexing problem. If the utilities are required to guard this fuel when the plants are shut down, it is not hard to see why they are pushing to have their licenses renewed long beyond what was considered safe when the plants were first constructed. One would imagine that this could get quite expensive on the utilities if they had to pay to guard the spent fuel until it is “safe” 10,000 years from now, or a permanent storage facility is constructed, whichever comes first. I know that the utilities are not responsible for paying for a nuclear accident, what was that law that limits the amount they have to pay again? Is there a point where the US taxpayer steps in and starts to pay for the security of the fuel? This cost should be factored in when any cost comparison of power generation methods is undertaken, I’m not so sure it is now.

    Also one more question, what is the status of that “permanent storage” facility you were talking about? When can we expect it to be ready, 2012,2014,2016? Thank you for your time and answers.

  6. I have to agree with Lance { posted comment above }, site safety to the community would suggest a similiar project for the site to ensure safety, also continuity would suggest site availability to enhance updated performance due to improvements that are deemed needed within the industry

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