Nuclear power stations’ hidden costs

The scary hidden cost of building a nuclear power station
Even assuming that SA can find the funds, we would do well to take into account the non-negotiable costs of decommissioning and waste management  BRENDA MARTIN
13 JUNE 2016 
Consider decommissioning costs before committing to new nuclear power investment

As South Africa prepares to invest in new nuclear power, we may do well to consider the other end of such investment: decommissioning. In the north of Germany, the Greifswald nuclear power plant (also known as Lubmin) has been undergoing the process of decommissioning since 1990. Before its closure, with a total planned capacity of 8 x 400MW plant built, but with only 5 reactors fuelled, Lubmin was to be the largest nuclear power station in East Germany prior to reunification. The reactors were of the VVER-440/V-230 type, or so-called second generation of Soviet-design. When it is concluded, the full process of decommissioning at Lubmin will have taken 30 years from first shutdown.  In 1990 the company responsible for decommisioning this 8 x 400MW nuclear power plant, Energiewerke Nord, estimated a cost of half a billion DM per unit. Later this estimate was adjusted to 3.2 billion/unit. Today 4.1 billion/unit is a conservative final estimate (Energiewerke Nord, 2016).

More recently, early in 2012, following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, the German government announced the immediate withdrawal of the operating licenses of eight German nuclear power plants and revived its plans to phase out nuclear power — by 2022. As this process unfolds, it will be possible to move beyond speculation, to actual data on costs, process and skills required for decommissioning.

What is involved in decommissioning a nuclear power plant?

Nuclear decommissioning is the process whereby a nuclear power plant site as a whole is dismantled to the point that it no longer requires measures for radiation protection to be applied. It is both an administrative and a technical process, including clean-up of all radioactive materials and then progressive demolition of the plant. Once a facility is fully decommissioned it should present no danger of radiation exposure. After a facility has been completely decommissioned, it is released from regulatory control and the plant licensee is no longer responsible for its safety.

The costs of decommissioning are spread over the lifetime of a facility and given that most nuclear power plants operate for over 40 years, funds need to be saved in a decommissioning fund to ensure that future costs are provided for.

What are the current estimates for nuclear power plant decommissioning?

This year, on April 28, an independent commission appointed by the German government (Kommission zur Überprüfung des Kernenergieausstiegs, KFK) presented its recommendations to the Ministry of Economics and Energy. The commission recommended that reactor owners — EnBW, EOn, RWE and Vattenfall — pay an initial sum of €23.3-billion ($26.4-billion) over the next few years, into a state-owned fund set up to cover the costs of decommissioning of the plants and managing radioactive waste. This sum includes a “risk premium” of around 35% to close the gap between provisions and actual costs.

According to the ministry, there will be approximately 10 500 tonnes of used fuel from 23 nuclear power plants, which will need to be stored in about 1 100 containers. A further 300 containers of high- and intermediate-level waste are also expected from the reprocessing of used fuel, as well as 500 containers of used fuel from research and demonstration reactors. In addition, some 600 000 cubic meters of low- and intermediate-level waste will need to be disposed of, including waste from industry, medicine and research.

Just before KFK started its work in October 2015, a study conducted by German audit firm Warth & Klein Grant Thornton for the Ministry of Economics and Energy had estimated the following costs for decommissioning 23 nuclear power plants, in 2014 money i.e. the cost if plants were to be decommissioned in 2014:

  • Closure and decommissioning:    €19.7-billion
  • Containers, transport:                     €9.9-billon
  • Intermediate storage:                     €5.8-billion
  • Final low heat waste storage:       €3.75-billion
  • Final high active waste storage:   €8.3-billion

i.e. a total of €47.5-billion.

However, decommissioning of all of Germany’s 23 nuclear power plants will not be undertaken at the same time. Most costs will be incurred in the future. Annexure 9 of the Warth & Klein Grant Thornton report provides an estimate of likely decommissioning costs when taking into account projected interest rate and inflation scenarios, as well as various likely nuclear-specific cost increases. Their conclusion? Total costs of decommissioning all nuclear power plants in Germany could reach up to €77.4-billion.

Given these emerging figures, even assuming that SA can find the necessary funds needed for new nuclear power investment, we would do well to take into account the increasingly known, non-negotiable related costs of decommissioning and waste management — of both old and new nuclear-related investment.


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