The massive and growing costs of decommissioning reactors, and nuclear waste disposal

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown, Yale Environment 360 25 JUL 2016: REPORT  German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive problem: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material. by joel stonington 26 july 16  The cavern of the salt mine is 2,159 feet beneath the surface of central Germany. Stepping out of a dust-covered Jeep on an underground road, we enter the grotto and are met by the sound of running water — a steady flow that adds up to 3,302 gallons per day.

“This is the biggest problem,” Ina Stelljes, spokesperson for the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, tells me, gesturing to a massive tank in the middle of the room where water waits to be pumped to the surface.

The leaking water wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the 125,000 barrels of low- and medium-level nuclear waste stored a few hundred feet below. Most of the material originated from 14 nuclear power plants, and the German government secretly moved it to the mine from 1967 until 1978. For now, the water leaking into the mine is believed to be contained, although it remains unclear if water has seeped into areas with waste and rusted the barrels inside.

The mine — Asse II — has become a touchstone in the debate about nuclear waste in the wake of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to end the use of nuclear power following Japan’s Fukushima disaster. The ongoing closures have created a new urgency to clean up these nuclear facilities and, most importantly, to find a way to safely store the additional radioactive waste from newly decommissioned nuclear reactors. Nine of the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors have been shut down and all are expected to be phased out by 2022.

In addition to Asse II, two other major lower-level nuclear waste sites exist in Germany, and a third has been approved. But the costs associated with nuclear waste sites are proving to be more expensive, controversial, and complex than originally expected.

And Germany still hasn’t figured out what to do with the high-level waste — mostly spent fuel rods — that is now in a dozen interim storage areas comprised of specialized warehouses near nuclear power plants. Any future waste repository will have to contain the radiation from spent uranium fuel for up to a million years.

Given the time frames involved, it’s not surprising that no country has built a final repository for high-level waste. In Germany, a government commission on highly radioactive nuclear waste spent the last two years working on a 700-page report, released this month, that was supposed to recommend a location. Instead, the report estimated that Germany’s final storage facility would be ready “in the next century.” Costs are expected to be astronomical.

“Nobody can say how much it will cost to store high-level waste. What we know is that it will be very costly – much higher costs can be expected than [what] the German ministry calculates,” said Claudia Kemfert, head of energy, transportation, and environment at the German Institute for Economic Research. The exact number, she said, “cannot be predicted, since experience shows that costs have always been higher than initially expected. ”

At the Asse II mine, roughly $680 million has been spent in the six years since the cleanup began, and the price tag for operations last year totaled $216 million. A 2015 report by Germany’s Environment Ministry noted, “There are currently no technical plans available for the envisaged waste recovery project which would allow a reliable estimate of the costs.”

No one expects to start moving the barrels at the mine until 2033, and estimates of finishing the process extend to 2065. Total costs for moving the waste to a future storage site will almost certainly be in the billions of dollars, with current estimates of just disposing of the recovered waste at $5.5 billion.

The waste issue is one reason nuclear power has been so controversial in Germany and why there is broad support among the public for phasing it out, with three-quarters of the German population saying they are in favor of Merkel’s decision, according to a survey this year by the Renewable Energy Hamburg Cluster.

“Nuclear in Germany is not popular,” Kemfert said. “Everybody knows it is dangerous and causes a lot of environmental difficulties. Nuclear has been replaced by renewables – we have no need for nuclear power any more.”…………..

With both nuclear waste storage and decommissioning, governments and power companies around the world have often opted for halfway solutions, storing waste in temporary depots and partially decommissioning plants. Worldwide, 447 operational nuclear reactors exist and an additional 157 are in various stages of decommissioning. Just 17 have been fully decommissioned.

In Europe, a recent report by the European Union Commission estimated that funds set aside for waste storage and decommissioning of nuclear plants in the EU’s 16 nuclear nations have fallen short by $137 billion. Dealing with nuclear waste in the United Kingdom is also a highly charged issue. At one location — a former weapons-manufacturing, fuel-reprocessing, and decommissioning site called Sellafield — the expected cleanup cost increased from $59 billion in 2005 to $155 billion in 2015. ……

despite recently completing a new plant, the United States is also struggling with decommissioning. The cost estimates of shuttering U.S. nuclear plants increased fourfold between 1988 and 2013, according toBloomberg News. Many governments are slowly starting to realize how much those costs have been underestimated.

As Antony Froggatt, a nuclear expert and researcher at Chatham House — a London-based think tank— put it, “The question is, how do you create a fair cost to cover what will happen far into the future?”  http://e360.yale.edu/feature/soaring_cost_german_nuclear_shutdown/3019/

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