In May, 2011, Germany announced that by 2022 they will close down all of their nuclear power plants. After Germany, the world's 5th largest user of nuclear energy, promised to wean their energy systems off of nuclear energy, many people are reviewing the situation in the US. Japan, Italy, and Switzerland have taken serious second looks at their nuclear programs, and the question stands, "How much should the US depend on nuclear power?"
If Barack Obama had announced on January 24 in his State of the Union address that the US was committed to an energy grid without nuclear power, how much would it cost? All decommissioning costs are currently covered by the utility, typically through annual deposits into a decommissioning trust fund (DTF). Because utilities save over the life of the reactor, closing a reactor early means that the DTF most likely will not have enough money to cover all of the decommissioning costs. If this were a government initiative, the public would supply the remaining funds. So to rephrase the question, what would it cost us?
As with all nuclear statistics, reliable estimates for decommissioning a nuclear reactor are difficult to find. They are almost always presented as a range of values, and the calculations are rarely included. To estimate decommissioning costs, I studied reactors in the US that have already begun the decommissioning process. By collecting Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activity Reports, License Termination Plans, and annual DTF status reports, I was to find industry estimates for decommissioning. However, the available data was limited since the vast majority of large nuclear plants in the United States are still in operation. Table 1 lists reliable data on a handful of reactors larger than 500 MW. After converting the costs to 2012 dollars and averaging over the MW capacity, I calculated an average cost of $379,700/MWe and a total estimate of $38.3 billion for the entire US nuclear fleet.
|Table 1: Estimated decommissioning costs for Nuclear Power Plants as calculated in post commercial use reports.
Even these statistics will have a large error, because of the variability in the industry estimates. Typically, these numbers include costs of planning/preparation, large component removal, dismantlement activities, low level waste shipping/burial, and spent fuel storage, but they often exclude steps such as site restoration. Furthermore, the long-term nature of decommissioning funding is plagued by debate over the best methods for cost estimation and DTF planning. This uncertainty is reflected in Table 2, which shows cost reports over a twenty-year span for the Rancho Seco plant. Nevertheless, these estimates are accurate enough for a feasibility study looking for a good ballpark.
|Table 2:Rancho Seco decommissioning cost estimates. 
The NRC decommissioning strategy is designed so that all of the decommissioning costs are covered by the utility, even after shutdown. The most popular funding technique is to build up a DTF over time with smaller regular deposits through the end of decommissioning, as oppose to a large sum put aside before construction. Early decommissioning (before the end of the license) will interrupt the DTF investment plans, leaving the utilities unprepared for the full cost of decommissioning. One workaround, and probably the most likely, would be to have the government help the utilities pay for an early shutdown. By calculating the average percentage of time remaining in US plant licenses, I was able to approximate the funds that would need to be supplied by the public. I found the start date and length of 104 licenses, added ten years for decommissioning time, then divided by the predicted cost found above to estimate the necessary annual installment over the life of a reactor. In addition, I gave each utility eleven years to continue operation and collecting funds as was the case in Germany. The result: $12.5 billion. Considering the annual US budget and the amount of money invested in energy from the 2008 Stimulus Package, this is not a terrifying expenditure for the US government.
The question remains, "Do we want to?" Nuclear power currently provides 20% of the electricity consumed in the US. Replacing that kind of supply would inevitably force more fossil fuel use, most likely in the form of natural gas. Furthermore, there is still no long-term storage facility for radioactive waste in the US. Due to the closing of the Yucca Mountain facility, the nuclear industry is forced to wait until the government fulfills its contractual obligation to provide long term storage. Preparing this facility in only a decade would likely have serious political and financial obstacles. Still, there are inherent risks with maintaining the world's largest fleet of nuclear reactors, highlighted by the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Germany is committed to a nuclear-free state by 2022. If the United States wanted to, they could be too.
© William Greenbaum. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
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