More than 50 years into the age of nuclear energy, one of the biggest growth opportunities may be junking old reactors.
Entergy Corp. (ETR:US) said Aug. 27 it will close its 41-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in 2014, making the reactor the fifth unit in the U.S. marked for decommissioning within the past 12 months, a record annual total. Companies that specialize in razing nuclear plants and hauling away radioactive waste are poised to benefit.
Disposal work is “where companies are going to make their fortune,” Margaret Harding, an independent nuclear-industry consultant based in Wilmington, North Carolina, said in an phone interview. Contractors that are usually involved in building reactors, including Bechtel Group Inc. and URS Corp. (URS:US), “are going to be looking very hard at the decommissioning side of it.”
With Dominion Resources Inc. (D:US), Duke Energy Corp. (DUK:US) and Edison International (EIX:US) shuttering reactors this year -- and Exelon Corp. (EXC:US) planning to close its Oyster Creek plant in 2019 -- the U.S. nuclear fleet of 104 units is shrinking, even as Southern Co. (SO:US) and Scana Corp. (SCG:US) build two units each. The reasons vary: Edison and Duke are permanently removing damaged plants from service. Entergy and Dominion are retiring the units because of factors including a glut of natural gas, a competing fuel.
The physical work involved in tearing down a nuclear plant takes about 10 years, according to John Hickman, a project manager in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decommissioning branch. The agency gives reactor owners 60 years to complete decommissioning, which it defines as permanently removing a plant from service and reducing radioactivity enough for the property to be used for another purpose.
The NRC is now overseeing 14 commercial reactors that are in some phase of decommissioning, excluding those marked for closure in the last year. The first plant to deliver commercial power in the U.S. was a General Electric Co (GE:US).-designed unit near Fremont, California, which began service in 1957, according to the agency. It was also the first unit to be decommissioned, in 1963.
Razing a plant is tricky business. Radiation can seep into the concrete, pipes and metal of plant structures, and workers need to be able to break down the units without exposing themselves, or the public, to contamination. Plants often sit idle for decades before being torn down in order to let radioactive material decay.
“The whole objective of decontamination is to get the dose levels as low as possible so you can do the dismantlement work,” Christine King, director of nuclear fuels and chemistry at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, said in a phone interview.
During a reactor decommissioning, the plant operator transfers radioactive fuel rods to cooling pools and, ultimately, to so-called dry casks for storage. Workers clean contaminated surfaces by sandblasting, chemical sprays and hydrolasing, a process that involves high-pressure water blasts, according to King.
“You do get to a point that you need someone to come in that has the equipment and the technology to actually dismantle the components,” she said. “That typically is hired out.”
New Orleans-based Entergy hasn’t determined the schedule or the cost for taking apart the Vermont Yankee reactor, though the company plans to let it sit long enough to let radiation decay, according to plant spokesman Rob Williams.
“The complete decommissioning process is likely to take decades,” he said in an e-mail.
When such work begins at a plant, it can create business for companies including EnergySolutions Inc. of Salt Lake City and Waste Control Specialists LLC of Dallas, both closely held, and US Ecology Inc. (ECOL:US) of Boise, Idaho. The companies dispose of low-level radioactive waste, including components and buildings at nuclear power plants.
The work doesn’t include removing the 65,000 tons of radioactive fuel that are now stored at about 75 operating and closed reactor sites across the country. The fuel will probably remain on site until lawmakers establish a plan for temporary or permanent disposal. House Republicans have said the U.S. should resume its work on the Yucca Mountain repository, a move that President Barack Obama’s administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, oppose.
“There’s a great opportunity for WCS in the decommissioning of nuclear-power plants,” Waste Control Specialists spokesman Chuck McDonald said in a phone interview. The company last year opened a West Texas facility where parts of nuclear-plant buildings and reactor components are sent for burial in steel and concrete containers 120 feet underground.
McDonald said he expects WCS will begin taking some of the material from Entergy’s Vermont Yankee plant, at Vernon, Vermont, once the utility begins dismantling it, due to an agreement between Texas and Vermont for waste disposal.
Chicago-based Exelon in 2010 transferred the license for its Zion plant to EnergySolutions, a nuclear-services company that operates low-level disposal sites in Clive, Utah, and Barnwell, South Carolina.
The two-reactor plant, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Chicago, had been closed since 1997. When EnergySolutions completes the $1 billion, 10-year dismantling and disposal process, it will transfer the license back to Exelon, according to the utility.
EnergySolutions later this year will begin the process of transferring spent fuel to a storage area at the Zion facility, Mark Walker, a spokesman for the disposal company, said in a phone interview. Knocking down structures will begin later.
EnergySolutions doesn’t have contracts in place to work on reactors that have been slated for decommissioning, Walker said. “We do hope there’s opportunity there,” he said.
Waste Control Specialists is doing some of the decommissioning work at Zion, according to McDonald, who said it’s hard for new companies to get into the business.
“The regulatory framework in this arena is so lengthy, it’s going to take a long time for somebody to be up and running to dispose of this type of waste,” he said.
Larger contractors that have experience in the area also are watching the plant closures closely.
“Bechtel has considerable experience in nuclear decontamination and decommissioning,” Jason Bohne, a spokesman for Bechtel National Inc., said in an e-mail. “We are closely monitoring opportunities” in the commercial sector and “plan to be a major player as the market evolves,” he said.
US Ecology’s low-level waste disposal site southeast of Boise, Idaho, is disposing of the lowest level of waste from plants including PG&E Corp. (PCG:US)’s Humboldt Bay reactor, Chad Hyslop, a spokesman for US Ecology, said.
The Humboldt Bay plant, near Eureka, California, has been out of service since 1976. Workers have been dismantling the unit since 2008, according to Loren Sharp, the plant’s director. Trucks may haul away 50 loads of material, including concrete and steel, each week for four to five years, he said in a phone interview.
The length of time to decommission a reactor creates uncertainty surrounding plant oversight, according to Shaun Burnie, an independent nuclear consultant who previously led environmental group Friends of the Earth’s campaign to close Edison’s San Onofre plant in California.
“Is Entergy going to be around in 50 years time? In 10 years time?” he said in a phone interview.
Ralph Andersen, senior director of radiation safety and environmental protection for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the industry is entering a new era for the companies that handle reactor decommissioning.
“It really does open the door to the marketplace rethinking ways to handle decommissioning,” he said.
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