Nuclear decommissioning is an expensive business. It is estimated that the decommissioning of existing sites in the UK will cost in the region of 70 billion GBP, but this is not taking the timescale of such operations into account. As the process happens in stages, the true cost is hard to determine. An example is the cost of dismantling the Brennilis Nuclear Power Plant in France: to date, the facility had soaked up 400 million GPB (twenty times the estimate), and more work still needs to be done to make the site and surrounding area safe for future use.
In the UK the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is the body responsible for sourcing contractors to carry out nuclear site cleanup. It aims to provide cost effective decommissioning of existing sites and implementation of long term management of sites while they are being dismantled. It is not just power plants that require decommissioning; although concern about the safety of such nuclear establishments are at the forefront of public concern, there are also a number of other industries that require the same treatment when it comes to shutting down.
Particle accelerators, such as the much publicised Large Hadron Collider (LHC), uranium mines and isotope production plants all require the services of a safe decommissioning contractor. The official stance on the process is to return the buildings and the site itself to a safe and decontaminated state so that it can be dismantled or reused with no risk of nuclear contamination.
Due to the increase in demand for energy, the mid 1900s saw the introduction of nuclear power facilities; and it is these facilities that are coming to the end of a lifetime of service. The need for economic and safe treatment of such plants has reached a crescendo as the new generation of reactors are ready to take their place. There could be as many as 10 new-style reactors required to meet the energy needs in the UK and although the new designs mean that less fuel will be used and will last longer, there is a chance that existing decommissioning and waste storage techniques will not be adequate.
The crux lies in the fact that the new rods have a higher burn-up rate, which in turn creates a much more radioactive substance when it comes to disposal. The increased radioactivity of the uranium generates more heat, which becomes a problem during storage after use in a reactor. Being able to consider a flexible approach to the storage of nuclear waste requires an open minded appreciation of the route the development of nuclear power facilities could take. Keeping the estimated and real costs of decommissioning down becomes more difficult if the fuel is more radioactive. In addition, if more repositories are required to enable the safe storage of super heated rods, the costs are going to increase in the reclamation of sites post-nuclear use.
According to the NDA, the radioactivity of the new type of uranium rod from the proposed reactors will be twice the level of our existing radioactive waste today. Although the disposal of the waste and the decommissioning of the sites will not be carried out until 2080, leaving the problem for the next 70 years is not an option. Far too often the industry is accused of leaving the safe handling of nuclear waste, fuel and facilities for future generations to work out, and at a time when we are currently paying a high price for safe nuclear decommissioning, we should appreciate the implications this may have on the future decommissioning contractors.
Dominic Donaldson is an expert in the engineering industry. Find out more about Nuclear Decommissioning and how these facilities are decomissioned according to government legislation at URS Corp.
Article Source: The True Cost of Nuclear Decommissioning