Decommissioning Nuclear Reactors in the United States

John Keller
March 12, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Decommissioning Nuclear Reactor, (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

"Nuclear power plants generate 14 percent of the world's electricity." [1] When reading that statement initially, fourteen percent does not seem like much, but for countries such as France, nuclear power is extremely important to them because it provides over seventy five percent of their total energy. [1] As the world struggles to find more sustainable and green energy resources, there have been many advocates stating that Nuclear energy is one of the cleaner fuel sources due to the fact that it has very little carbon emissions. As with any harvestable energy resource, there are pros and cons to the creation of the power that people depend on in their everyday lives. One of the cons that are really starting to purvey its ugly face is what to do with the nuclear reactor chambers once their expected lifespan has come to a close.

Decommissioning the Reactor

Decommissioning nuclear reactors has become a more important and controversial topic because of recent events. The first topic is the major disaster at the North Korean nuclear power plant, which caused people around the world to realize the dangers that nuclear energy brings. The other topic is with Germany deciding to completely rid itself of nuclear energy, and many of the first nuclear power plants hitting the end of their lifespan. There will be eighty nuclear reactors being decommissioned which is a little under a quarter of the total civil nuclear reactors in the world. [2] Even though, the United Nations Environmental Programme stated that "Many civilian nuclear power reactors will continue to operate safely beyond their original design life. Some will have their operating licenses renewed for up to 60 or even 80 years". [2] At some point, every nuclear reactor that is created will have to be decommissioned similar to the way Fig. 1 shows. The decommissioning process begins with the sealing of the vent, as shown in Fig. 1, in order to safeguard against the possibility of any leakage of radioactive material. This is important because each nuclear reaction when the nuclear reactor is being broken down, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme, on average when a nuclear reactor is broken down, there is six hundred and eight pounds of waste produced, of that two hundred and forty of it is radioactive material that will have to be closely monitored for the thousands of years in order to insure that it does not contaminate anything.


The decommissioning process is one that has been overlooked in the recent nuclear reaction because it is a process people feel that is far away. This is actually very much to the contrary because of the short designed lifespan for a project that takes in the billions of dollars to build. Then, the plant has to be monitored very closely, so it seems that there are not very high profit margins for companies that decided to build a nuclear power plant. In the piece called Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs, it said that a nuclear power plant can make between six and nine billion dollars during its life expectancy, but the costs to build especially in todays market with all the necessary safety regulations can run you about eight billion dollars, which does mean a billion dollar profit. [3] As a result, the issue comes that anything that goes wrong cuts into the profit, one of the big factors can be improper decommissioning of the nuclear reactor, creating costly cleaning efforts for the operators.

© Charles John Keller. 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.


[1] "Key World Energy Statistics 2014," International Atomic Energy Agency, 2014.

[2] ,UNEP Year Book 2012," United Nations Environmental Programme, 2012.

[3] D. Schlissel and B. Biewald, "Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs," Synapse Energy Economics, July 2008.