4. "Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants"
The decommissioning of nuclear reactors, which have lifetimes of 30
to 40 years, is a problem that has hardly been considered and has not
been resolved. So far, 11 licensed nuclear plants and reactors have
been shut down, with two cases where they were completely dismantled
and buried in licensed burial grounds which may one day cover one tenth
of the U.S. surface. In these two cases, costs ran almost as high for
dismantling as did the original construction. The intensity of radioactivity
that will surround shutdown plants -- some of it being hazardous for
as long as 1.5 million years -- will make it necessary for all reactors
to eventually be completely decommissioned though other temporary methods
are being used. If the complete job is delayed for the recommended 100
years, and the funds and personnel are available, the costs per reactor
will be at least $40 million with upper limits that can't even be estimated.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission seems to assume that income generated
by the reactors' use will pay for the expenses -- but what happens if
a reactor fails after only a few years of operation, or if its corporate
owner no longer exists, or if the waning industry itself ends?
An example of one case that is going on now is the West Valley Plant
in New York, which was the only nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that
has ever operated in the United States -- and was shut down in 1972
after 6 years of problem-plagued operations. The plant, which sometimes
gave workers as much as 1/4 of a yearly-permissible dosage of radiation
in 15 minutes, is faced with the question of how to dispose of over
600,000 gallons of high-level radioactive wastes that will be toxic
for at least the next 250,000 years. Getty Oil Corporation, which owned
the plant through Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., plans to sever its ties
when the lease runs out in 1980, leaving New York state with a $4.4
million maintenance fund. Estimates for making the West Valley plant
safe range from $60 to $600 million. While waiting a solution, the wastes
are now buried in carbon steel tanks, eight feet beneath the ground,
that will last a few decades at most, in an earthquake prone area.
What has not been adequately considered is that the problems of nuclear
power, which has so far been nourished primarily by government funds,
do not end with the many drawbacks and difficulties cropping up with
the reactors themselves -- such as low productivity, inadequate safety
precautions, dwindling fuel supplies, skyrocketing prices, etc., but
also extend to what happens when the plants are shut down. The questions
of waste disposal and how decommissioning costs are going to be paid
remains. Southern California Edison Company has suggested a plan whereby
the electric companies could be eventually collecting as much as $50
million a year for decommissioning costs from consumers and that may
only be the tip of the iceberg. The staggering potential of the nuclear
question qualifies this story to be nominated as one of the "best
censored" stories of 1977.
"A Landscape of Nuclear Tombs," by Alexis Parks, Progressive,
December, 1977, p. 30-31.
"The Cost of Turning it Off," by Steve Harwood, Kenneth May,
Marvin Resnikaff, Barbara Schlenger, and Pam Tames, Environment, December,
1976, p. 17-27.
"West Valley. The Tombstone of Nuclear Power," by Richard
Beer and Peter Biskind, Seven Days, March 28, 1977, p. 3-6.