The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a public meeting to consider the latest development in what has become a growing trend in the nuclear power industry – accelerating decommissioning by transferring licenses to third parties after a plant shuts down. The topic of today’s NRC meeting was to provide an overview of Entergy’s plan to sell and transfer the NRC licenses for the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station – which permanently ceased operations at the end of 2014 – to NorthStar Group Services, Inc., a company that specializes in nuclear decommissioning and environmental remediation. This meeting began the process by which the companies seek NRC approval of the transaction.
Why would anyone want to buy a nuclear plant? Because they can decommission it faster, with more certainty in schedule and costs,that’s why. In the nuclear decommissioning business, time is literally money. NRC regulations allow up to 60 years for completion of decommissioning, and waiting is a prudent and safe practice that often becomes necessary when plants shut down early. Plant owners are required to set aside money in a nuclear decommissioning trust fund while the plant is operating and to assure the NRC that this fund will be sufficient to decommission the plant. For early shutdowns like Vermont Yankee, additional time may be needed for the decommissioning trust fund to grow through the accumulation of investment interest before the more significant work can begin. What decommissioning companies are saying, though, is that their experience enables them to provide more certainty to efficiently and safely dismantle the plants without having to wait.
It is not surprising that much has been learned about nuclear plant decommissioning. The process has already been completed at 11 U.S. power reactors and dozens of additional facilities around the world, where radioactive systems and structures have been decontaminated and dismantled, with any remaining low-level radioactive waste shipped off to disposal sites. High-level radioactive waste, in the form of used nuclear fuel, is transferred to robust concrete and steel dry cask storage systems that are typically located at the site until a permanent disposal facility is developed by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Recently, this experience was put to the test at the Nuclear Power Station. Shut down in 1998, Zion was in a holding pattern until 2010, when Exelon transferred the license to a subsidiary of decommissioning company Energy Solutions. The project is now on track for completion well ahead of its 2020 deadline – more than a dozen years earlier than originally planned. A similar approach is now also being applied to the decommissioning of a reactor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin which ceased operations in 1987.