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The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on the urgent need to safely decommission nuclear power plants, which are increasingly shutting down. The United States is facing a significant wave of nuclear plant closures for which it is unprepared. Most of the existing U.S. reactor fleet will inevitably close over the next two decades, as plants near the end of their operational lifespans. Decommissioning is the process of dismantling the closed plant and securing or removing radioactive waste while lowering the site’s residual radioactivity to safer levels. Getting decommissioning right is critical to communities’ health and safety, while getting it wrong could pose an existential threat.
Leading scientists, policy experts, NGO advocates, and local elected officials with experience on decommissioning spoke at the briefing. It covered the impacts of decommissioning, current decommissioning options, waste storage vs. transport, thorny unsolved problems and best practices, financing and liability, a just transition for communities and workers, how communities and states can and can’t weigh in on these issues, and how they should inform the fast-changing legislative and regulatory landscape.
More than 80 reactor communities, as well as countless communities along proposed radioactive waste transport routes in 75 percent of Congressional districts, will be profoundly affected by how decommissioning is handled. The potential for radiological contamination, accidents, and long-term environmental, public health and economic damage increases as plants are dismantled and radioactive materials are handled, moved and stored. Reactor communities risk becoming de facto stewards of stranded high-level nuclear waste, which poses local and regional threats. Yet, in most cases, shipping the waste can pose even greater threats. Communities will have to deal with the economic impacts of the legacy of reactor sites that can never be fully decontaminated.
The existing regulatory and legislative framework around decommissioning nuclear plants is insufficient to handle these issues, and in any case it is changing rapidly as Congress considers pending legislation (HR 3053 is just one example) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission drafts new rules that will govern decommissioning and spent fuel disposition. The experts who addressed this briefing have learned surprising lessons about decommissioning that Washington needs to hear as it makes key decisions the consequences of which we will live with for a long time to come.
This briefing was co-sponsored by Beyond Nuclear, Ecological Options Network, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS), Nuclear Resource and Information Service (NIRS), Riverkeeper, Safe Energy Rights Group, Unity for Clean Energy (U4CE), and others.