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What Does it Cost to Decommission a Nuclear Power Plant?

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in Southern California.

Nuclear energy, as it turns out, is expensive.

From construction, to maintenance, and even decommissioning, running a nuclear plant can easily cost billions.

While the majority of the plant’s life is certainly expensive, it’s the final portion–the decommissioning–that’s surprisingly costly. 200 nuclear reactors are slated to be shut down by 2040—totaling more than $100 billion in decommissioning costs. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is warning governments that there are “considerable uncertainties” about these costs, cited governments limited experience on the matter, seeing as there have only been 10 plants decommissioned in the last 40 years.  

So, on an individual basis, what does it cost to shut down a nuclear power plant?

For an answer to this question, we look to the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in Southern California. In 2012, it was revealed that the new Mitsubishi tubes put in were wearing prematurely and in June of 2013, it was announced that the plant would be shut down entirely. The plant would be decommissioned, beginning in early 2016.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Comission, the process would take around 20 years and cost $4.4 billion, the most ever for decommissioning a plant.

One of the major issues facing the decommissioning project is the storage of the nuclear waste left behind by the plant. As of right now, there are no commercial facilities to do so. With so many plants about to be decommissioned, this is about to become a major issue—San Onofre is only one plant out of many.

Paul Dorfman of the Energy Institute at University College London told Financial Times that the IEA’s $100 billion estimate is only for the decommissioning process itself and does not include the costs of this permanent waste disposal.

“The UK’s own decommissioning and waste disposal costs are £85 billion alone,” he noted, “so that gives you an idea of the astronomical costs associated with nuclear.”

However, while governments and utilities should be absolutely wary of these costs, they’re also a driving force of innovation, according to Andrew Sherry, director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester University.

Sherry told Financial Times he believes the amount of plants being retired in coming years will “spur the sector to find ways to reduce volumes of this high-level, or radioactive waste, in the decommissioning and waste management process.”

This is especially important, since the cost could be much greater than $100 billion.

Still, San Onofre is an example to watch in the world of nuclear power as just how much decommissioning a plant could cost. 

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