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Nuclear Power Dirty Bomb 

Politics / Nuclear Power Oct 28, 2013 - 08:55 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Within the next 15 – 20 years as many as 100 industry standard Westinghouse-type 900 MW PWR pressurized water reactors, concentrated in the "old nuclear' countries will have to be decommissioned, dismantled and their sites made safe - unless political deciders maintain the sinister farce of rubber stamping reactor operating lifetime extensions. The decontamination process could take as long as 100 years. In several countries, especially Germany, Switzerland and probably Japan the dangerous game of politically-decided reactor life extensions – to push back the date of final decommissioning - has already ended or is ending.

But when it does end, nuclear debt will go into overdrive from its already extreme high setting. Nuclear power is capital intensive, lives on subsidies, thrives on false hopes and dies in debt.

Putting a figure on how much the nuclear "decomm" story will cost and how long it will take is in fact impossible - and is signalled by the tell-tale anticipative action of nuclear friendly governments. One stark example is the UK, which now sets decomm as an activity that will only need to start at a generous, or foolhardy 30 or 40 years after the reactor was powered down and removed from the national power grid. Until then, the reactor can sit on the horizon as a contribution to national culture or something “in perfect safety of course”. Decomm periods could or might therefore be 100 years.

As already noted above, there are no rules, standards and best practice in decommissioning, dismantling and “making safe” or “securing” the former sites of reactors. So there is no standard cost for getting rid of reactors. It is a case-by-case process. This alone prods the highly political decision to set a “delay” between reactor shut down, and decommissioning which as noted above, in the extreme UK case is now set at 30-40 years.
Before the final shut down, of course, reactor operating life extensions can squeeze some more power out of the reactor – and further delay the moment when it has to be decommissioned. Only idiots can pretend this does not expose the reactor to increased risks of accidents. Ask yourselves if you prefer to fly in a 40-year-old airplane, or a new one.

Real-life decomm sagas, as distinct from emergency dismantling following a serious or catastrophic accident as in the case of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are always – always – a tale of vastly underestimated initial costs and timelines for decomm, followed by massive cost overruns and time overruns. Plenty of examples concern the now-quarter-century old projects, and longer, where initial cost estimates have been exceeded by actual spending by 5 or 10 times, and the decomm project's time for completion multiplied by 3. And today the projects are not yet fully completed!

There are always excuses, to be sure. Several examples are available from France, which due to its main electric power producer, EDF, being politically “conferred” the operation of all the country's 63 formerly nationalized nuclear reactors, produces approximately 84% nuclear-origin electricity. Dating from pre-nationalization, and before the political decision to only build PWRs, state experimentation with reactors included several types.

One was the CANDU-type heavy water reactor able to use cheaper, less enriched uranium, of which one semi-experimental, partly-commercial version was built in France. Of 70 MW power, the Brennilis reactor, about 60 kms from Brest was built between 1962 and 1967. It was then operated until complete removal from service in 1985. Since then it has been “under decommissioning”, and present-day (late 2013) official statements suggest its site could be finally decontaminated and made safe by or before 2017. To be sure, previous announcements of a completion date included 2005, 2012 and 2014. Initial decomm cost and time estimates, made in 1985 by the official PEON (nuclear electric power commission) suggested the total cost would be the equivalent, in euros, of about 20 – 25 million euros and the decomm could be completed in 10 years.

Spending to date is officially said to be about 500 million euros. No final cost figure is given, but EDF and government sources presently suggest “about 700 million euros”. The cost overrun is therefore at least 27-fold.

This concerned one very small reactor. Unfortunately for nuclear apologists or “nuclear buffs” there are no or few economies of scale. Decomm of a big reactor costs more than decomm of a small reactor, due to factors including the amount of “nuclear plumbing”, or reactor power and fuel circuits, and total radiological inventory or quantity of highly radioactive materials present in the reactor when decomm started. For the Brennilis reactor, of 70 MW, simply emptying the “nuclear plumbing” took 7 years. The decision to dismantle the fuel circuits was itself “controversial” and imposed by the UN's IAEA against French government wishes – because of costs. The French government wanted to simply leave the Brennilis reactor on the horizon for “about 40 years”, and then start dismantling. If that option had been chosen, the total decomm period would likely have been 50 – 75 years, or more. 

Build a reactor in 1962. Stop using it in 1985. Finally remove it about 2055. Spend 700 million euros doing so. This 70 MW reactor officially produced a total of 6.235 billion kWh in its lifetime, so the per-kWh cost of its “rather expensive” nuclear power can be calculated, of course excluding its initial building costs and operating costs throughout its lifetime.

As with other reactors, Brennilis decomm options also included the jargon terms “safestore” or fully enclosing the site and delaying full decomm for an arbitrary but long period, and “sarcophage” decomm, or “entombment”, that is building a dome over the entire reactor assembly, and its spent fuel, then possibly covering that dome or structure with an earth berm up to 30 – 40 metres thick. The laborious and extreme high-cost attempts to build the “definitive sarcophage” at the Chernobyl site have continued on and off for 27 years with total spending to date in the region of 1.5 – 2.5 billion euros, on top of and excluding several-hundred-billion euros spent on emergency action following the 1986 disaster, and a highly disputed death toll figure for fatalities involved.

Creating a landscaped artificial hill, using earth berms on top of the definitive or final sarcophage, if or when it can be financed and finished, looks marvellous in nuclear brochures and publicity cartoons but is science-fiction - due to extreme costs. In the Brennilis case, building a sarcophage over this toy-sized reactor was rejected as far too expensive, and the theoretical option of sarcophage-plus-landscaping was made even less possible, due to geological and water table constraints.

Concerning the 10-only civil power reactors partly-decommissioned to date in the USA, current estimates of full and definitive decomm costs are usually given as a cost-per-kilowatt of previous power output. These estimates are generally in the range $250-$500 per kilowatt, implying total costs at an extremely and unrealistically low total of around $0.4 billion for each industry standard 900 MW reactor. In the Russian case, as we know, “decommissioning” features pure and simple dumping of highly radioactive trash and debris in the ocean. Presumably Russians like eating radioactive fish.

The keyword "disaster" suffers from serial overuse, for example the loss of Michael Jackson is a "disaster" for world culture, but nuclear disaster has a real and known meaning. In the case of Chernobyl and Fukushina we can unfortunately be sure that total costs have already run into the region of 400 billion dollars for Chernobyl, and at mimimum will run at more than 250 billion dollars for Fukushima over the next 30 years. Nuclear apologists make a point of never adding these costs.

At a meeting in Boston at the Maine statehouse, October 9, a panel of nuclear experts argued that the entire 104-reactor fleet of the USA should be shut down and decommissioned “as soon as possible”. The panel was headed by former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko, and included Peter Bradford, an NRC commissioner during the Three Mile Island accident; nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen; and former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. While the NRC argues the chance of accidents causing reactor meltdown are “one in a million”, the problem is they can happen tomorrow – not in a million years of combined reactor fleet operating time – but the economic and financial impossibility of shutting down civil reactor fleets is the real barrier.

Because of costs, the de facto “solution” is firstly to extend reactor operating lifetimes, then partly decommission and dismantle reactors when they are taken out of service, delaying the decontamination of nuclear sites, and pushing all costs into the future. Unfortunately and until the reactors are made safe, they by definition pose almost open-ended risks. These extend from “simple” accidents and technical malfunction, to operator errors, and to the risk of them becoming giant Dirty Bomb targets in civil war, international war, or terror attacks. Even the most extreme non-nuclear industrial risks, notably at “Seveso or Bhopal type” chemical facilities, are pale by comparison.

Nuclear waste business, as we know, is not business friendly and leads to the very basic reflex of simply dumping a considerable and growing part of the world's unmanageable nuclear wastes from the current world fleet of around 436 operating civil reactors (depending on how many Japanese reactors are brought back into service). Proliferation risks are deliberately restricted to only conventional explosive nuclear weapons and their radioactive materials - totally ignoring both Depleted Uranium weapons using "recycled" nuclear wastes, and the potential future Dirty Bomb targets of active and “partly decommissioned” reactors lurking on the horizon. These with almost no possible doubt will be prime targets in coming civil wars and international wars. These nuclear war options are above all cheap, and of course very dirty.

Since the 1991 Gulf War 1 against Iraq, the war against Afghanistan starting in 2001, and the second war against Iraq of 2003 at least 2500 tons of Depleted Uranium weapons have been used by the US, UK and France in these “delightfully far away” over the horizon wars against lesser races and nations. Depleted Uranium ordnance, to date has caused a conservatively estimated 10 000 cancer deaths, and as many as 50 000 still-living cancer victims in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This has easily calculated economic consequences. When this concerns free market white democrat middle class consumers, the same types of cancers are costed at roughly $ 40 000 for a cancer death and $ 25 000-per-year for surviving cancer sufferers.

The "cute idea" of recycling nuclear wastes as DU ordnance has a cosy market-friendly smell, to some, but the economic damage that these filthy weapons generate smells a lot worse. Those who profit from misery and death will finally pay. The same weapons can be turned around and used on them.

Turning off the nuclear tap will soon become the only solution. Civil nuclear power plant growth and  proliferation has already cancelled in several countries, including Germany, Japan and Switzerland, and is likely to be placed on hold, because of nuclear debt and the sheer un-economic nature of nuclear power, in other countries. Of course we can be sure that China and India will come very late to the party and may need the “tweak” of one or more worst-case reactor meltdowns to make them move.

We can however be sure that Nuclear Nirvana's murky underside of a Pandora's Box of evils will soon cause a sea shift in ruling elite thinking.

Options exist for the rapid removal of nuclear power from the scene. Since 2008, in more than a half of OECD countries exposed to the realities of the sovereign debt crisis, electricity consumption has fallen, sometimes by double-digit amounts in 3 years. The need for nuclear power is cut by this real world trend. To be sure there are also long-term and rising nuclear debts due to accumulated wastes and to the near-term future crisis of reactor decommissioning - which in a sane world would only hasten the total abandonment of this failed option for supplying "cheap, clean and safe" power.

The options are better known than ever. The pathology of "we didnt know" has worn awfully thin after the Fukushima disaster. The same applies to Depleted Uranium weapons, nicely reserved for expert commentators to pontificate about - but which cause real world cancers and economic loss every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The choices and options are on the table for those who want to admit them. Unfortunately our current political decider elite is congenitally unable to admit them. Soldiering along and muddling through with the deadly, high cost option of nuclear power will continue - but not for long. As ever, one disaster is worth a lot more than a million words.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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