The Impending US Nuclear Disaster

The US and their aging reactor fleet has been the subject of much discussion including the safety of running these old plants far past their original lifespans.

The issue of the massive stockpile of spent nuclear fuel has been discussed more post-Fukushima. The NRC’s current plan appears to be storing casks in nuclear power plant parking lots for 200 years. This long term problem that has recently become an even more urgent problem isn’t the only nuclear mess the US is facing.

The New York Times examined the situation of nuclear power plant decommissioning. Each power plant is required to set up a trust fund that they put rate payer money into for future decommissioning costs. These trust funds are allowed to invest as they see fit, including in the stock markets. The 2008 stock market crash eroded many funds that were already deficient for covering the cost of cleaning up a reactor site. If many funds have more than enough money to cover decommissioning the power company gets to keep the rest. If the fund runs short the public makes up the difference.  The cost to decommission a plant ranges from $400 million to $1 billion dollars.

Scenarios where power companies profit from any excess in the trust fund encourages cutting corners and delaying decommissioning as long as possible to try to gain more excess profit in the fund. This also encourages risky investing where profit can go to the power company. If the fund falls short the public is stuck with the bill. There is also the possibility of a nuclear power operator simply filing for bankruptcy or going out of business, dumping the insufficient trust fund on the public to deal with the abandoned nuclear plant. Since most nuclear power plants and their operators divert each plant into its own LLC, a company could close or abandon a plant and the LLC company without any recourse to the larger private company that operates multiple facilities.

A prime example of how these power companies can easily scam the public and shirk all responsibility for the plant decommissioning was seen with the Zion nuclear plant in Illinois. Exelon sold the plant to ZionSolutions including the trust fund. The trust fund was intended to send excess back to rate payers. With the slight of hand where the fund was given as an asset to “Zionsolutions” rate payers lost oversight, access and refunds. Zionsolutions, oddly named specific to the plant appears to be a company created just for decommissioning Zion and is related to a company called Energy Solutions. A private company that has a nuclear waste dump in Utah. They intend to take the entire Zion facility and dump it in the Utah desert. The discount “decommissioning” by dumping the entire plant in the desert would net ZionSolutions about a 20% profit. No word on what happens to it then when ZionSolutions evaporates.
There are many ways for these current nuclear reactor owners to not just cut and run on a facility but do it and make a profit at it.

The problem the NYT mentions, that many of these funds do not have nearly enough money to cover the expected decommissioning costs is even more worrisome. The proposed solution from the plant operators is to just let reactors sit for about 60 years and hope the money in the fund will have exceeded the increasing costs of decommissioning by then. This along with the proposal to put spent fuel casks in plant parking lots for up to  200 years and the industries habit of selling off plants to shell corporations, the result is rather obvious. Abandoned decaying nuclear plants with massive amounts of spent fuel sitting near populated areas. While this is more towards the worst case scenario this is exactly what the current system allows and is setting as policy.
The Other End Of The Fuel Cycle.

Spent fuel and languishing reactor sites are not the only problem. The government fuel manufacturing facilities are coming back to haunt the US with a very large bill in hand. Two facilities, one in Ohio and another in Kentucky originally belonged to the US government by way of the Department of Energy. These nuclear fuel factories are massive complexes. The one in Kentucky is the largest single energy consuming facility in the world and uses as much electricity as the city of St. Louis. These two factories have long histories of contamination problems and worker exposures.

The decommissioning of both plants could be as high as 46 billion dollars, the trust fund to clean up these fuel factories only has 4.4 billion currently. The government has kicked this issue around for years refusing to fund the ongoing work needed at the plants while they hemorrhage cash.  Adding to the problems, the plant has become a political football. Politicians have been delaying, obstructing and then wanting more money put into the plant as a “jobs program” that would lose even more money. In 2011 USEC lost half a billion dollars along with a $50 million mystery payment from the US govt.

These two plants sit with no clear plan for decommissioning, draining public funds.

This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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