The social costs of nuclear power plant closure

14 January 2021

A report from US-based Nuclear Decommissioning Collaborative examines the socioeconomic impacts of decommissioning on nuclear plant host communities

OPERATION OF A TYPICAL NUCLEAR power plant contributes at least $400 million annually to its host region, according to Socioeconomic Impacts from Nuclear Power Plant Closure and Decommissioning: Host Community Experiences, Best Practices and Recommendations, released in October. As a result, the impacts of reactor closures can be ‘swift, severe, and lasting,’ the report finds.

It was prepared by non-profit Nuclear Decommissioning Collaborative, the USA’s nuclear decommissioning clearinghouse and was funded by the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) part of the US Department of Commerce.

The report states “over the next several decades, all [US] nuclear power plants that currently operate will close and be decommissioned...with the cost to complete this decommissioning effort estimated to be approximately $100 billion.”

However, despite the large sums of money involved in decommissioning upon closure, the socioeconomic ripple effects to host communities are “swift, severe and widespread,” with local public services such as schools and emergency responders tending to suffer significant cutbacks.

While these impacts occur at every nuclear power plant, the effects are felt more deeply in rural communities where most plants are located, the collaborative says.

The report is based on findings from interviews with 27 decommissioning stakeholders, which took place from December 2019 through April of 2020. Interviewees consisted of community leaders, economic development professionals, industry representatives and local elected officials. They were chosen from nine nuclear plant host communities representing decommissioned (Connecticut Yankee and Maine Yankee), decommissioning (Crystal River, Pilgrim and Zion) and operational reactors (Davis Besse, Diablo Canyon, North Anna and Palisades) in the USA.

As an example, the report cites Maine Yankee, which operated in Wiscasset, Maine from 1972 to 1997. During its operation, the plant employed more than 500 workers, with the majority living within 20 miles of the plant. At the time of its closure, the Maine Yankee nuclear plant contributed $12 million annually in local taxes, covering 90% of the Wiscasset’s municipal budget for schools, fire protection, and other public services.

“These communities continue to face real losses and ongoing hardship,” commented Jim Hamilton, founder and executive director of the collaborative. “While there is increased attention being paid to the plight of these communities, economic development planning remains a challenge and many struggle finding the capacity to begin their recovery.”

For more than 20 years, plant host communities across the United States have undertaken various attempts at recover, but efforts have been hampered by various factors including:

  • Limited resources for economic development. For example time, funding and local capacity for economic recovery planning are in short supply once plant closure takes place.
  • Steep learning curve. Nuclear plant closure and decommissioning is complex and often seen as a “once in a lifetime experience.” Roles and responsibilities of local and state stakeholders are unclear and there are limited opportunities and resources for meaningful community engagement.
  • Socioeconomic impacts of operating plants are not well understood.
  • The long-term presence of spent nuclear fuel hinders economic development.
  • The lack of a coordinated federal framework with limited focus on socioeconomic impacts.

The report finds that emerging efforts (at the local, state and federal levels) would benefit from increased alignment and coordination towards the goal of implementing decommissioning projects that produce outcomes that are of greater benefit to the host community.

From a local perspective it recommends: “Identification of economic development barriers (eg, presence of spent nuclear fuel, lack of planning resources) and the design of economic recovery plans, well before a plant is scheduled to close.

In parallel with local entities developing economic mitigation plans prior to plant closure, states have a similar incentive to anticipate closure and develop their own policies. “Without prior action in advance of plant closure, the role of states is generally limited,” the report states.

On a national level, the report notes that the huge sums required to decommission the current nuclear fleet will be derived largely from ratepayers. To ensure that those same ratepayers may realize maximum benefit from decommissioning, the report recommends “the improved coordination of federal agencies focusing on additional research, efficient deployment of resources and the provision of planning assistance would be a demonstrable benefit to host communities.” It adds that the establishment of a national network of nuclear closure communities would also improve the effectiveness of the federal response.

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