Decommissioning: a new nuclear dawn — or sunset?

18 January 2005

Decommissioning of nuclear facilities is now big business. Many uranium mines, commercial nuclear power reactors, research reactors and other fuel cycle facilities have already been retired from operation. Some of these have already been fully dismantled and sites returned to alternative uses. The sums of money involved are considerable and the business is very attractive to both major international contracting companies and smaller local specialists.

Opponents of the nuclear power industry point to the sums of money involved in cleaning up old nuclear sites and assert that a similar experience will follow in the future if new reactors are constructed. The implication is that not all costs are being incorporated when economic evaluations are made of new reactors.

There is also the assertion that the extent of decommissioning activity marks a sunset for the nuclear industry. The switch of activities away from new reactor build towards shutting down and cleaning up existing sites is seen as demonstrating that a mature industry has now moved towards its final death.

The sums of money involved are certainly considerable. The £48 billion quoted in the UK as the cost of cleaning up the historical legacy of nuclear liabilities represents about £800 for every UK citizen. However, this is to be spread over a considerable period of time in the future and will be spent under competitive tendering by the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The UK has at least ‘bitten the bullet’ by stating a figure but the total sums of money required in the USA and the former Soviet Union are likely to be considerably in excess of this. It can certainly be viewed as a burden left to future generations by those in the recent past but the annual sums involved are not set to be huge by comparison with public expenditure on defence, education, health or even road-building. There are no obvious implications for public health and safety in cleaning up the sites over a considerable period of time, so it is best to spread the burden and also to profit from the increased experience of learning by doing.

The key point, however, is that these nuclear sites mostly date from the early days of nuclear research and development (R&D) in the 1950s and 1960s and cannot fairly be laid at the door of the commercial nuclear power industry today. At that time, the thrust of R&D was very much towards military applications with commercial nuclear power merely a sideshow. Far less attention was paid to the environmental consequences of the activities than would be acceptable today.

We are now subjecting historical decisions to new, stricter modern rules and regulations. Any new nuclear build will have to incorporate adequate decommissioning funding in its financial analysis. In fact, the sums of money that must be put away on an annual basis do not affect the economic viability of new nuclear reactors in comparison with competing technologies. Decommissioning funds are rather like personal pension funds – if relatively small amounts of money are put away in the early days, the nature of compound interest means that after 50 or 60 years, substantial funding is available to meet the liability. Modern reactor designs are also simpler and smaller in scale of construction than the older reactor types, so should be easier to decommission after their working lives. The experience gained of nuclear decommissioning should also be considerable by then, meaning that costs should be falling.


The extent of clean-up activities from the experimental early days of nuclear is a one-off expense that will never be repeated

Turning to the additional argument presented by those opposed to the nuclear industry, is it now past maturity or still lying at an early stage of development? Certainly, the lack of new reactor construction in most countries is hardly a sign of robust health. Only in India and China can the prospects be described as exciting, with only a few other bright spots in evidence around the globe, such as the fifth Finnish reactor. The lack of new orders poses significant problems for maintaining the capacity to keep the industry going in the future. The closure of university courses in nuclear engineering and reactor physics is a sign that young people are not being attracted to a career in nuclear. The attention that the industry has given to this phenomenon shows the seriousness with which it is regarded. The establishment of the World Nuclear University marks recognition that the industry needs to develop its future leaders, at a time when opportunities are perhaps more obvious elsewhere to young people.

Taking the UK as an example, the government’s weak ‘support’ for the industry (“keeping the option open”) and the switch of activities within BNFL towards decommissioning and clean-up through acting as a contractor to the NDA would indicate that the sun is going down on the industry and is in imminent threat of setting. Although it has long been hoped that the AGRs could potentially run longer than their current licences, technical issues now suggest that this is unlikely and, by 2020, the Sizewell B PWR will be the only reactor in operation. Uranium conversion is ending at BNFL in 2006 and reprocessing of spent fuel has an uncertain future beyond 2010. The only expanding part of the nuclear industry in UK, with the exception of waste management and decommissioning, is uranium enrichment by Urenco at Capenhurst, where capacity is expanded on a modular basis as contracts are earned.

It is possible, however, to paint a much more positive picture. If you believe that a substantial nuclear revival will be required for sound economic and environmental reasons, the period between the mid-1980s and today can be seen as a mere hiccup in the longer-term development of the industry. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be seen as instrumental in causing the industry to pause for breath as its safety and economics came under closer scrutiny. The extent of clean-up activities from the experimental early days of nuclear is a one-off expense that will never be repeated – beyond that, the decommissioning today of early reactors, mines and so on, is an entirely normal activity where the experience gained will earn rewards for the future. Looking many years into the future, when Generation IV reactors will be operable, nuclear power may play a considerable role in hydrogen production, and seawater desalination, in addition to power generation.

The existing stock of nuclear reactors, amounting to 440 around the world, is also likely to last considerably longer than many outside critics and commentators suggest. Apart from early reactors in UK and a few other countries, the only reactor closures are likely to be those which are politically-inspired in countries such as Sweden and Germany, and some of old Russian designs in Eastern Europe. Elsewhere, operating life extension of reactors is an accepted, highly economic method of meeting rising electricity demands. When reactors can be kept going longer at acceptable costs, delaying the employment of decommissioning funds is an additional reason for carrying on operating for additional years.

In fact, the nuclear industry shows many other signs of immaturity when compared with other industries. It is still treated like an infant industry in many countries, with large amounts of government control and state intervention. Reactor design and supply are still undertaken by a large number of companies, whereas a more mature industry would show greater signs of rationalisation towards a small number of suppliers. There is greater rationalisation evident elsewhere in the nuclear fuel cycle, where uranium supply, conversion and enrichment are all now largely in the hands of large, highly economic operators. Yet the nuclear fuel market is far from mature, relying on a rather haphazard mix of long-term contracts and a creaky spot market. It would seem that a greater volume of business is needed to move this forward onto something more efficient.

It must be hoped that decommissioning of facilities will gradually be accepted as an everyday part of the nuclear industry and not something that attracts particular note or comment. The historical clean-up liabilities will eventually be dealt with and more modern facilities financed in a way that clearly covers all likely costs. It is important that the industry convinces its opponents that all possible costs are incorporated, particularly as it makes a lot of the non-incorporation of external costs of fossil fuel-fired generation modes.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.