It usually takes decades for defunct nuclear plants in the United States to be taken apart and cleaned up so the land can be developed for other purposes. Long after the main facilities are dismantled and their sites remediated, spent fuel remains radioactive and takes years to cool off in pools before it can be safely placed in concrete cylinders—dry casks, in industry lingo—for interim storage that could last years or even decades. Utility companies stuck with these useless sites often delay the costly cleanups as long as they possibly can.
But Bob Salsberg reports for the Associated Press that a profit-hungry industry is emerging to rescue electric utilities that have little enthusiasm for dismantling their own aging nuclear power plants. Behind a promise of dramatically reduced decommissioning times, in some cases by as much as 50 years, a group of companies wants to buy the retired plants, take on the work of demolishing them, and manage storage of the spent fuel rods that will likely be stuck on the plants’ grounds for a very long time.
Companies like Holtec International (which Salsberg reports has deals for several plants that are being retired up and down the east coast and in Michigan) will take on the nuclear facilities, their multibillion-dollar funds set aside for the decommissioning process, and the prospect of lucrative government compensation. (Since there’s no national long-term disposal site for high-level civilian nuclear waste, the concrete cylinders have to stay where they are until a long-term repository is created.)
Holtec claims it can safely store spent fuel in its specialized cylinders after only two years of cooling, instead of the five to 10 years of cooling now required. But opponents and some officials worry that encouraging commercialization of nuclear waste storage will jeopardize safety, and that the speedier decommissioning projects will hit more snags than they already do. Salsberg notes that Holtec International has “never managed a decommissioning start to finish.”
It’s also not clear that moving spent fuel from cooling pools into storage canisters a few years more quickly than it otherwise might be moved will make the former sites of nuclear power plants—still burdened with dry casks full of nuclear waste—all that attractive as developments sites.