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Nuclear decommissioning is the process whereby a nuclear facility is dismantled to the point that it no longer requires measures for radiation protection. The presence of radioactive material necessitates processes that are potentially occupationally hazardous, expensive, time-intensive, and present environmental risks that must be addressed to ensure radioactive materials are either transported elsewhere for storage or stored on-site in a safe manner. The challenge in nuclear decommissioning is not just technical, but also economic and social.
Decommissioning is an administrative and technical process. It includes clean-up of radioactive materials and progressive demolition of the facility. Once a facility is fully decommissioned, no radiological danger should persist.
The costs of decommissioning are generally spread over the lifetime of a facility and saved in a decommissioning fund. After a facility has been completely decommissioned, it is released from regulatory control and the plant licensee is no longer responsible for its nuclear safety. Decommissioning may proceed all the way to “greenfield” status.
Definition of Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning
Nuclear decommissioning is the administrative and technical process whereby a nuclear facility such as a nuclear power plant (NPP), a research reactor, an isotope production plant, a particle accelerator, or a uranium mine is dismantled to the point that it no longer requires measures for radiation protection. The progressive demolition of buildings and removal of radioactive material is potentially occupationally hazardous, expensive, time-intensive, and presents environmental risks that must be addressed to ensure radioactive materials are either transported elsewhere for storage or stored on-site in a safe manner. Decommissioning may proceed all the way to “greenfield status”. Once a facility is decommissioned no radioactive danger persists and it can be released from regulatory control.
Options for decommissioning
The International Atomic Energy Agency defines three options for decommissioning:
- Immediate Dismantling (Early Site Release/Decon in the United States) allows for the facility to be removed from regulatory control relatively soon after shutdown. Final dismantling or decontamination activities begin within a few months or years, and depending on the facility, it could take five years or more. After being removed from regulatory control, the site becomes available for unrestricted use.
- Safe Enclosure (or Safestor(e) Safstor) postpones the final decommissioning for a longer period, usually 40 to 60 years. The nuclear facility is placed into a safe storage configuration during this time.
- Entombment/Entomb involves placing the facility in a condition that allows the remaining radioactive material to remain on-site indefinitely. The size of the area where the radioactive material is located is generally minimized and the facility is encased in a long-lived material such as concrete, with the aim of preventing a release of radioactive material.
Legal aspects of Decommissioning
The decommissioning of a nuclear reactor can only take place after the appropriate license has been granted pursuant to the relevant legislation. As part of the licensing procedure, various documents, reports, and expert opinions have to be written and delivered to the competent authority, e.g. safety reports, technical documents, and an environmental impact study (EIS).
In the European Union, these documents are the basis for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) according to Council Directive 85/337/EEC. A precondition for granting such a license is an opinion by the European Commission according to Article 37 of the Euratom Treaty. Article 37 obliges every Member State of the European Union to communicate certain data relating to the release of radioactive substances to the Commission. This information must reveal whether and if so what radiological impacts decommissioning – planned disposal and accidental release – will have on the environment, i.e. water, soil, or airspace, of the EU member states. On the basis of these general data, the Commission must be in a position to assess the exposure of reference groups of the population in the nearest neighboring states.
Cost of Decommissioning
In the United States, the NRC recommends that the costs of decommissioning should be spread over the lifetime of a facility and saved in a decommissioning fund. Repository delay seems to be effective in reducing NPP decommissioning costs.