Deconstructing the Decommissioning Process

Dave McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

Duke Energy’s decision to shut down the Crystal River 3 reactor in Florida rather than pay for expensive repairs to its containment dome has focused attention once more on the lengthy process for decommissioning nuclear power plants. Since Dominion Nuclear’s announcement last year that it will shutter its Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin, the country now has two reactors entering this process.

crDuke took the first step on Feb. 20, when it gave the NRC its official certification that it had permanently ceased operations at Crystal River 3 and permanently removed the fuel from the reactor. Those certifications effectively changed the plant’s operating license to a “possession only” license – in other words, the company is no longer permitted to load fuel into the reactor vessel and operate the plant.

After these initial certifications, the process can be quite slow. Duke will have up to two years to develop and submit its decommissioning plan – officially called the post-shutdown decommissioning activities report, or PSDAR in NRC-speak. The report will include a description and schedule for decommissioning activities, their estimated cost, and a discussion of why any anticipated environmental impacts have already been reviewed in previous environmental reports on the plant.

Once the NRC receives the PSDAR, we will publish it for public comment and conduct a public meeting near Crystal River to explain the decommissioning process. Duke will not be able to conduct any major decommissioning activities until 90 days after NRC receives the PSDAR.

Under NRC regulations, Duke can take up to 60 years to complete the process, from cessation of operations to final decommissioning and termination of license. Why so long? There are actually two advantages: Radioactivity decays over time, making the final cleanup easier; and the company’s decommissioning trust fund continues to grow. This stage of decommissioning is called SAFSTOR, as the company maintains the shuttered plant in safe storage until final cleanup begins.

Throughout this process, Duke will be able to use some of its decommissioning funds. It can spend up to 3 percent of the fund on decommissioning planning as it develops the PSDAR, and up to 20 percent to maintain and monitor plant safety during the SAFSTOR period. NRC limits use of the funds to ensure that enough money remains to complete cleanup and follow the process through to license termination.

The NRC requires Duke to clean up the site so that residual radiation is quite low – specifically, that no person on the site would receive a dose above 25 millirem per year. (In comparison, the average American receives 310 millirem per year from natural radiation, and the dose from a single chest X-ray is about 10 millirem.) At least two years before Duke reaches that point, it must submit a license termination plan, detailing the final steps. NRC inspectors will verify that the site has been decontaminated to the NRC’s requirements. Duke will then ask the NRC to terminate the license, or modify it to apply only to a spent fuel storage facility, if needed.

One popular question is the cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant. Estimates vary, and of course it has been several years since a plant has been decommissioned, but the NRC estimates that the costs generally range from $300-400 million. This estimate applies only to NRC-mandated activities – in other words, reaching the radiological criteria. Dismantling other parts of the plant (such as support buildings) would cost extra, so the company’s estimate might be higher.

Throughout the entire decommissioning process, the NRC’s objective is to protect public health and safety while ensuring that the site is cleaned up to our requirements.

For more information, NRC regulations on decommissioning are 10 CFR 50.82 and 10 CFR 20, Subpart E.

Additional Note: There are two other possible methods for decommissioning. DECON involves active decontamination of the site, either immediately after operations cease or after a period of SAFSTOR. The third, ENTOMB, is just what it sounds like – radioactive contaminants are permanently encased on site in structurally sound material such as concrete and appropriately maintained and monitored until the radioactivity decays to a level permitting restricted release of the property. To date, no NRC-licensed facilities have requested the ENTOMB option.

Author: Moderator

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

4 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Decommissioning Process”

  1. The owners of these two sites made this business decision to decommission these sites. Any decision to pursue a restart in the future or use the site as a museum, once it is safe to do so, would be a decision by the respective owners.

    Dave McIntyre

  2. I just think it is a terrible waste that kewauness has nothing wrong with it and it has to be decommissioned. It is possible to have something between full operation and decomissioning that would make it possible to shut down a reactor temporarily until is may be needed again? That is, would it be possible to preserve the parts inside without having to take it down? Or would some taking apart be done during safestor? I always wondered if it might be possible to make a no longer used power station a national nuclear power museum. Would an idea like this be possible?

  3. There are several former reactor sites where decommissioning has been completed but spent fuel remains onsite. In these cases the operating license is modified to cover the fuel storage facility, while the rest of the site can be released for public use. The fuel is still there because the federal government has not yet developed a permanent disposal site like the one that was envisioned for Yucca Mountain.

    Last year, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended establishing some centralized, regional storage sites for spent fuel, with a priority on removing the stored fuel from the decommissioned reactor sites. Last month, the Energy Department endorsed that strategy, but of course licensing and establishing such a site will take time. It is impossible to predict right now whether such a site or even a permanent disposal option might be available by the time Crystal River 3 and Kewaunee complete their decommissioning.

    The 60-year period for decommissioning really is unrelated to this issue. The time limit was included in NRC regulations for decommissioning long before the lack of disposal capacity for spent fuel became a problem.

    Dave McIntyre

  4. Where are the highly radioactive materials going to be stored once they are removed from the site?

    IMO This is why we are now seeing the time to decommission stated as 60+ years…

    All these old reactors sites will simply become nuclear material storage sites.

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