There are not many jobs you could take on at the beginning of your working life and know they would still be nowhere near completed by the time you retired. But decommissioning the world’s nuclear power plants is one of them.
The estimates of the amounts of money involved in keeping old nuclear plants safe and dismantling them are so large that they are almost beyond comprehension − and unlikely to be accurate anyway.
The fact is that the problems are so difficult and so liable to complications that delays and costs are bound to escalate.
That is probably why many of the large engineering and nuclear companies have lost interest in building new nuclear reactors and, instead, are concentrating on getting contracts to take the old plants to pieces.
It is a potential market growing at enormous pace because dozens of reactors are nearing the end of their lifetimes.
Nuclear waste repository
But dismantling nuclear power plants and making them safe is no easy task. Nuclear consultant Pete Wilkinson, who used to advise the UK government, says: “People will be grappling with hundreds of technical and safety problems that have not been solved and programmes that are not adequately funded. Finding and building a repository for this nuclear waste is a huge engineering project that will go on for centuries.”
The British government has a fantasy that they will find a volunteer community prepared to take all the country’s high-level nuclear waste.
Pete Wilkinson, nuclear consultant
The UK government last week estimated the clean-up cost of just one site − Sellafield, in northwest England − at £88 billion. The government is already spending about £2 billion a year trying to tackle just some of the problems at the site, and that sum is bound to rise.
Sellafield is the place where, 60 years ago, the UK first produced plutonium for nuclear weapons and started to generate electricity from a Magnox nuclear reactor.
It also has two reprocessing plants intended for turning spent nuclear fuel back into plutonium and uranium for re-use. Instead, Sellafield has become the world’s biggest stockpile of plutonium and uranium, holding enough to destroy the planet many times over.
Thousands of people still work at the site at various plants processing waste. It also contains many disused buildings and storage tanks full of radioactive waste − some badly in need of dismantling on safety grounds.
In nearby Manchester, 350 of the world’s top executives from companies involved in the industry are meeting on 24 and 25 May at the Nuclear Decommissioning and Waste Management Conference Europe to discuss Sellafield and the dozens of other nuclear waste sites across the continent.
Among the topics discussed will be the European Commission’s estimate of a shortfall of €118 billion in funds for nuclear waste management. This money will have to be found by governments in order to keep their populations safe.
Decommissioning is also becoming a problem in the US, where nuclear power plants are closing because they cannot compete any longer with renewable energy.
The US, like the UK, France, Germany and Japan, has also still to solve the problem of what to do with long-lived nuclear waste, which remains dangerous for at least 100,000 years. So finding somewhere safe to put it, without the radiation leaking out and contaminating future generations, is a tall order.
As a result, all long-lived wastes in these countries is in interim storage, awaiting a long-term solution. Both the UK and German governments have thought in the past that they had found suitable underground disposal sites, but in both countries the rock formations were found not to be stable enough to prevent leakage.
Japan has an additional problem − the legacy of the 2011 Fukushima disaster that led to three nuclear reactors undergoing a partial core meltdown after an earthquake and tsunami.
The government has just doubled its estimate for cleaning up the site to $193 billion. But this is likely to be wrong, simply because the site is still in such a serious condition that no way of cleaning it has been found.
Russia and many former Soviet countries also have no nuclear waste disposal facilities.
Wilkinson says: “In my view, it is wrong to consider building new nuclear stations while the problem of dealing with the waste from them is not solved. We are no nearer solving it than we were 45 years ago, when the first British government report into nuclear waste said exactly that, and was ignored.
“The British government has a fantasy that they will find a volunteer community prepared to take all the country’s high-level nuclear waste. They have been looking for one without success since 2005, when the idea was first proposed, and have been turned down by everyone. There are no solutions in sight.”
This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.