The decommissioning of nuclear reactors, which have lifetimes of 30 to 40 years, is a problem that has hardly been considered and has not been resolved. So far, 11 licensed nuclear plants and reactors have been shut down, with two cases where they were completely dismantled and buried in licensed burial grounds which may one day cover one tenth of the U. S. surface. In these two cases, costs ran almost as high for dismantling as did the original construction. The intensity of radioactivity that will surround shutdown plants–some of it being hazardous for as long as 1.5 million years–will make it necessary for all reactors to eventually be completely decommissioned though other temporary methods are being used. If the complete job is delayed for the recommended 100 years, and the funds and personnel are available, the costs per reactor will be at least $40 million with upper limits that can’t even be estimated.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission seems to assume that income generated by the reactors’ use will pay for the expenses–but what happens if a reactor fails after only a few years of operation, or if its corporate owner no longer exists, or if the waning industry itself ends?
An example of one case that is going on now is the West Valley Plant in New York, which was the only nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that has ever operated in the United States–and was shut down in 1972 after 6 years of problem-plagued operations. The plant, which sometimes gave workers as much as 1/4 of a yearly-permissible dosage of radiation in 15 minutes, is faced with the question of how to dispose of over 600,000 gallons of high-level radioactive wastes that will be toxic for at least the next 250,000 years. Getty Oil Corporation, which owned the plant through Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., plans to sever its ties when the lease runs out in 1980, leaving New York state with a $4.4 million maintenance fund. Estimates for making the West Valley plant safe range from $60 to $600 million. While waiting a solution, the wastes are now buried in carbon steel tanks, eight feet beneath the ground, that will last a few decades at most, in an earthquake prone area.
What has not been adequately considered is that the problems of nuclear power, which has so far been nourished primarily by government funds, do not end with the many drawbacks and difficulties cropping up with the reactors them selves — such as low productivity, inadequate safety precautions, dwindling fuel supplies, skyrocketing prices, etc., but also extend to what happens when the plants are shut down. The questions of waste disposal and how decommissioning costs are going to be paid remains. Southern California Edison Company has suggested a plan whereby the electric companies could be eventually collecting as much as $50 million a year for decommissioning costs from consumers and that may only be the tip of the iceberg. The staggering potential of the nuclear question qualifies this story to be nominated as one of the “best censored” stories of 1977.
“A Landscape of Nuclear Tombs,” by Alexis Parks, Progressive, December, 1977, p. 30-31.
“The Cost of Turning it Off,” by Steve Harwood, Kenneth May, Marvin Resnikaff, Barbara Schlenger, and Pam Tames, Environment, December, 1976, p. 17-27.
“West Valley. The Tombstone of Nuclear Power,” by Richard Beer and Peter Biskind, Seven Days, March 28, 1977, p: 3-6.