Dominion Resources Inc. announced plans to decommission the Kewaunee Power Station on Oct. 22, but the process is long from over. After housing a nuclear energy plant for 38 years, it could take over 60 years to get the land back to its original state.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allows plants 60 years to go through the decommissioning process, which includes hosting public meetings, safely dismantling the plant, getting rid of its used fuel and radioactive parts, and cleaning up the area.
That’s assuming there’s a place to put the radioactive waste. In 1982 the federal government was charged to open a deep geologic repository to store spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste by 1998. Fourteen years later, no nuclear storage facility has been built, and plants are left to store radioactive fuel onsite.
“[Storage] has been one of the issues that’s dogged the nuclear industry since its beginning,” said Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin.
The longer the country goes without a place to store radioactive fuel, the future of decommissioning plants is less certain. Rick Zuercher, manager of nuclear public affairs at Dominion, expects the federal government will have a storage facility in place when the Kewaunee Power Station is ready to ship off its used fuel.
“Sixty years is a long time, so we would hope that the Department of Energy would have a solution by then,” Zuercher said. “If it hasn’t, then that section of site will continue to have to be monitored and guarded.”
There is over 900,000 pounds of fuel – high-level radioactive waste – at the Kewaunee Power Station. Many parts of the plant, like the fuel reactors, are also radioactive. Radioactivity is dangerous and can cause cancer or death depending on the amount and type of exposure.
Zuercher said Dominion plans to get the Kewaunee Power Station back to “greenfield” status, meaning the site will be restored to its condition before the nuclear plant was there.
But without a permanent place to send used fuel, not all of the 900-acre plant site can become a greenfield. The radioactive high-level waste has to go somewhere, so it would be kept in dry storage casks on site.
Dry storage casks are 15 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 19 feet deep. They’re made of two-foot thick concrete and lined with stainless steel. Over 40 storage casks would be needed to hold all the fuel at the Kewaunee plant.
“Even though the site, most of the land, will be released, there will be this one area that will remain kind of in Dominion’s possession and not accessible to the public,” said Viktoria Mitlyng, NRC public affairs officer.
Onsite storage concerns some like Katie Nekola, an attorney at Clean Wisconsin.
“The radioactive waste isn’t going to go anywhere,” Nekola said. “Even as they dismantle the plant itself and haul the pieces away, they’re not going to be able to take the high-level radioactive waste away from the site, and it’s still going to require some maintenance. It’s just going to be there.”
The NRC estimates costs for decommissioning a nuclear power plant range from $280 to $612 million, and the agency requires owners to demonstrate financial assurance for decommissioning the plant in order to maintain their license.
Zion Station – a nuclear power plant in Zion, Ill. with two Westinghouse reactors similar to the reactor at the Kewaunee Power Station – stopped operating in 1998, and in 2010 began the decommissioning process. It’s looked at as a model for the 14 other nuclear plants decommissioning around the country.
Exelon, the company that owns Zion Station, contracted decommissioning to Energy Solutions, an international nuclear services company. Energy Solutions expects to store fuel from the Zion plant onsite and move low-level waste, like radioactive parts of the reactors, by freight train to sites in Utah and Texas.
According to a June 30, 2012 article in the Chicago Tribune, Energy Solutions underestimated the cost of the project by about $100 million and is running out of money in the $800 million trust established for decommissioning Zion Station.
Zuercher said Dominion has no plan to contract with another company to decommission the Kewaunee Power Station, and they won’t take the plant apart immediately.
The Kewaunee Power Station will sit, untouched and turned off, for a few years until the radioactivity decays and the equipment is safer to dismantle said Zuercher. The used fuel is first moved to pools where it can cool down, and after at least five years is put in the dry storage casks.
“As time goes on, the nuclear material becomes less active, less dangerous,” Mitlyng said. “The more the material decays, the easier and the less dangerous it is to decommission because you’re handling waste that is not as ‘hot.’”
That long process means some maintenance and security will be required.
“We’re going to have people working there for many years,” Zuercher said. “We expect that half the site, half the people working at the site, would be working there for long term.”
That means some of the 650 people who work at the plant will be able to keep their jobs, at least for a while. Zuercher said the company plans to lay off a third of plant employees next year when the fuel is removed from the reactors, then lay off about 100 more after the plant is placed in a storage condition several months later.
Security personnel and those with regulatory licenses or certifications will stay, he said.
“We do have a number of positions in our nuclear business unit at other locations in Virginia or in Connecticut and would like to fill them with individuals from Kewaunee, if they would like to relocate to stay with the company,” Zuercher said.
Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, said job placement groups were working to find work for laid off employees. He plans to host meetings for workers to find out what kinds of skills they have, their education levels, and how they can transition to other jobs.
“We have this whole group of extremely talented, skilled individuals, and those of us here in Northeast Wisconsin would be crazy if we didn’t do everything we possibly could to keep that talent here,” Golembeski said.