It’s one thing to kill a nuclear reactor, but what to do with the body?

Only a handful of reactors worldwide have been fully dismantled, meaning the process is largely uncharted territory. Tearing apart reactor cores, for instance, creates unknown challenges and potential risks given the level of radiation inside them.

Aging Nuke Plants Add to Europe’s Economic Woes , Washington Examiner, By GARY PEACH Associated Press VISAGINAS, Lithuania November 17, 2012 (AP) The parking lot outside the atomic power plant is weedy and potholed. Bus stops that once teemed with hundreds of workers are eerily empty.

Yet the stillness at Ignalina, a Lithuanian nuclear plant built in the 1980s Soviet era, belies an unsettling fact: There is still nuclear fuel inside one of its two reactors, three years after it was shut due to safety concerns.

A temporary storage facility for spent fuel and radioactive waste is four years behind schedule, creating a money drain at a time when the 27-nation European Union grapples with a crippling economic crisis. States don’t need EU permission to build nuclear plants, but they need to abide by its safety rules and the problems at Ignalina have provoked threats from the EU to cut the funding promised for dismantling it. That raises concerns that the facility will be around for years, possibly decades, longer than planned.

Ignalina is turning out to be a hard lesson for Europe: It’s one thing to kill a nuclear power station; getting rid of the remains is another headache entirely.

Many experts downplay safety risks in delays to dismantling Ignalina
and two other communist-era plants in Slovakia and Bulgaria, but that
is little comfort to nearby residents who fear risks of a radioactive
leak will only grow with time……
Ignalina’s delays and massive cost overruns offer a cautionary tale
for the EU, which aims to dismantle dozens of nuclear facilities over
the next two decades.

In the poor nations of Eastern Europe, some fear offline nuclear
reactors left in limbo pose extraordinary risks.

“Lithuania cannot continue the decommissioning process for an
unlimited period and risk creating another Chernobyl in the middle of
Europe,” Zigmantas Balcytis, a Lithuanian member of the European
Parliament, has said.

A major nuclear disaster is much less likely in a closed plant than in
a live one. The Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency says an offline
plant contains only one-thousandth of the radioactive material of one
in operation. Still, there are dangers of smaller releases of
radioactivity into the air or soil, while workers face exposure to
lethal doses. …..
Dormant nuclear facilities could potentially pose a tantalizing prize
for terrorists or smugglers of nuclear materials, and experts point to
another worry: Only a handful of reactors worldwide have been fully dismantled, meaning the process is largely uncharted territory. Tearing apart reactor cores, for instance, creates unknown challenges and potential risks given the level of radiation inside them.
Steven Thomas, an energy expert at Britain’s Greenwich University,
says taking apart the core will likely require robots that are not yet
invented. “The robots we have at the moment won’t do it because the
levels of radioactivity will send them berserk,” he said.

Ignalina presents particular challenges. The nuclear fuel rod bundles,
at 7 meters (23 feet), are twice as long as those in conventional
plants and must be sawed in half to fit into storage casts.

Spent nuclear fuel is by far the biggest decommissioning headache. It
is extremely radioactive and will remain so for thousands of years. In
the U.S. and elsewhere it’s a political bomb because no state or
county wants to store it. France chooses to reprocess its fuel for
further use in reactors, while Sweden and Finland bury it in casks
deep underground.
In the long term Lithuania hopes to send its fuel back to Russia,
where it was manufactured. But for now it has nowhere to put many
spent fuel bundles since the temporary storage facility that was
supposed to be ready when the plant closed in 2009 is still not

Decommissioning work in Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria has been held
up by vague contracts, lengthy regulatory approval, commercial
disputes and management changes, according to officials involved in
the projects.

Since closing the plants was a condition for their joining the bloc,
the EU is paying almost the entire bill, and for taxpayers, it’s huge
—more than €2 billion ($2.6 billion) so far, over half of it to
Ignalina, the most troublesome. The three countries have re-estimated
total costs at €5.3 billion ($6.8 billion) — up from the original
estimate of €4 billion ($5.1 billion) — and doesn’t include the
toughest job, dismantling the reactor cores.

The job was due to be completed between 2025 and 2035, but may take
much longer and cost more.  That’s a disturbing omen for the EU’s
plans to shut down one-third of its member states’ 143 active reactors
by 2025. The bloc currently has 77 reactors offline in various stages
of decommissioning.

Other EU countries will have to foot the bill for closing their own
plants, adding to taxpayers’ woes…….

In its heyday, the Ignalina plant near the border with Russia employed
5,000 people and provided power to Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and
Russia. Although 2,000 people still work there, the atmosphere inside s almost funereal.


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