New reactor ownership models set to cut decommissioning costs

The accelerated decommissioning market is taking shape as new license transfer approaches and cutting-edge technologies look set to dramatically shorten dismantling and fuel transfer procedures.

Stubbornly-low wholesale power prices have dented the economic competitiveness of U.S. and European nuclear power plants and decommissioning activity is expected to hike in the coming years in the absence of regulated price support.

There are currently 18 U.S. nuclear power plants being decommissioned and this will soon increase following a recent spate of plant closure announcements due to sustained low power prices.

The number of European nuclear power plants in decommissioning is expected to rise from 76 in 2015 to around 110 in 2020, Jorg Klasen, Director Nuclear Decommissioning Services at German operator EnBW Kernkraft, said in May 2016.

The wholesale price pressure imposed on nuclear operators has raised the importance of optimizing decommissioning costs and recently-announced joint ventures and technological advancements aim to accelerate the decommissioning process. Labor costs represent on average 44% of total nuclear decommissioning costs, according to a 2011 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and longer timelines incur greater regulatory and cost risk.

Last month Areva and Northstar announced a new joint decommissioning company which will be able to acquire the "complete and permanent" ownership of the decommissioning asset, including used nuclear fuel.

The new joint company, Accelerated Decommissioning Partners (ADP), will provide a one-stop final decommissioning solution for the original operator. ADP will provide all required regulatory, technical and financial expertise to perform the full decommissioning process, Areva and Northstar said in a joint statement February 1.

The ADP partners are already in talks with Entergy over the decommissioning and dismantling of two U.S. nuclear reactor sites following their expected shutdown, an Areva spokesman confirmed March 7.

Negotiations will cover terms for the transfer of ownership of the sites and the used fuel inventory upon shutdown of the plants.

"This assessment is expected to conclude at the end of 2017," the Areva spokesman said.

ADP combines Areva's expertise in nuclear component dismantling and used fuel management with NorthStar’s demolition and environmental remediation experience. The two firms have already been involved in the license termination and decommissioning of more than 10 NRC-licensed nuclear facilities and Northstar recently announced it would work with Areva Waste Control to decommission Entergy's 620 MW Vermont Yankee plant which was shut down at the end of 2014.

Entergy has agreed to sell the Vermont Yankee plant and transfer plant licences to the NorthStar group in a deal which will "accelerate decommissioning and site restoration by decades," Entergy said in a statement November 8.

Prior to the agreement, Entergy had submitted the plant for deferred decommissioning (SAFSTOR) and planned to initiate decontamination and dismantlement in 2068 and complete decommissioning and site restoration by 2075.

                                 US decommissioning cost estimates

Source: Callan Institute's '2016 Nuclear Decommissioning Funding Study.'

The Vermont Yankee licence transfer agreement is expected to close by the end of 2018, by which time Entergy has agreed to transfer all of Vermont Yankee's spent nuclear fuel to on-site dry cask storage.

"NorthStar has committed to initiate decontamination and dismantlement by 2021 and to complete decommissioning and restoration of the Vermont Yankee site (with the exception of the Independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI)), by 2030," Entergy said in November.

NorthStar will continue to operate and maintain the ISFSI until the US Department of Energy (DoE) fulfils its statutory and contractual obligations to remove all of the spent nuclear fuel. When the spent fuel has been removed, NorthStar will decommission the ISFSI, terminate the license and complete site restoration.

In another recent collaboration, EnergySolutions and AECOM announced in December that their joint decommissioning company, SONGS Decommissioning Solutions, had won the contract to decommission Southern California Edison’s (SCE’s) SONGS nuclear power plant in California.

The estimated cost of the decommissioning project is $4.4 billion and this covers dismantling, spent fuel management, radiological decommissioning and restoration of the site within 20 years.

AECOM has experience in the removal of contaminated components, systems and demolition of non-safety related structures. The company's previous projects include work at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge site.

EnergySolutions has decades of experience in nuclear plant decommissioning projects and will draw further learnings from ongoing projects which include Exelon’s 1.0 GW Zion plant in Illinois and Dairyland Power Cooperative's (DPC) 50 MW La Crosse boiling water reactor (LACBWR) in Wisconsin.

Faster dismantling

Growing project experience is improving efficiency and shortening dismantling and decontamination timelines, John Sauger, Executive Vice President and CNO, EnergySolutions, said at the 2016 Nuclear Decommissioning & Used Fuel Strategy Summit in October.

"Our new schedules based on Zion [plant decommissioning project] are six and a half to seven years to tear down the plant, from start to finish," he said.

EnergySolutions has provided a range of decommissioning services in the U.S., from initial planning to site remediation at plants including Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts, Connecticut Yankee and Big Rock in Michigan.

EnergySolutions is the only non-utility 10CFR50 license holder in the U.S and has already is using a license-stewardship model to decommission Exelon's Zion plant and DPC's La Crosse reactor.

Under the La Cross license transfer, which was agreed in 2016, DPC remains responsible for the operations, maintenance and security at the on-site Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) and EnergySolutions will transfer the License back to DPC when decommissioning is complete. DPC will continue to manage the ISFSI, with costs incurred covered by the DoE under its spent fuel responsibilities.

The license transfer will see decommissioning completed by 2020, some five years ahead of previous estimates, DPC said.

Fuel transfer

Cutting-edge technologies are also accelerating decommissioning time plans.

Holtec announced January 23 a new "proto-prompt decommissioning" strategy which aims to use the latest nanotechnology to transform nuclear plant site to green field status within 5 1/2 years after a reactor is shut down.

Holtec has used nanotechnology to manufacture a fuel basket which can transfer used nuclear fuel to dry storage in less than 2 1/2 years after the reactor is shutdown.

The friction-stir welded 'Metamic HT' fuel basket has over 10 times the thermal conductivity of the conventional stainless steel fuel baskets and the "young and hot" used fuel can be maintained at temperatures below limits regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the company said in a statement.

The accelerated fuel transfer service is already being planned on current projects, a Holtec spokeswoman said.

"In short, Metamic HT (a nano-tech product) has shortened the required cooling period of used fuel prior to transfer to dry storage, from the previous benchmark of 7 years to 2-1/2 years, enabling the shuttered plant site to be returned to its pre-plant state in about 66 months after the reactor's shutdown," the company said.

Nuclear Energy Insider