Dismantling nuclear plants is a gold mine for some, but at what risk to you?
Shutting down nuclear plants is set to become a multi-billion dollar business. If that business fails, critics say, your tax dollars - and possibly your safety - could be on the line. Learn more in our USA TODAY NETWORK Northeast project, The Nuclear Option.
The nuclear power industry is shrinking by the day.
Some 20 reactors at 15 power plants across the U.S. have plans to shut down or are in the midst of being decommissioned, a process that traditionally takes decades.
Now, a new crop of companies — fed by Wall Street speculators — are claiming they can cut that time to at least eight years, as they eye the $60 billion set aside in trust funds to handle the messy work of shutting down nuclear reactors.
Two firms, Holtec International of Camden, New Jersey, and its rival, New York-based NorthStar Group Services, together with their partners, have been on a buying spree in recent years, snatching up power plants across the nation with the promise of quicker teardowns.
A quicker-to-finish timeline appeals to folks who live near power plants in communities that for decades could count on balancing their budgets with the tax revenue they generated.
But watchdog groups, politicians, scientists and experts on decommissioning nuclear plants are questioning whether safety will be sacrificed for speed, as profit-seeking companies rush to finish one job so they can move on to the next.
There are also worries that the trust funds will be bled dry before the job is completed, leaving taxpayers — and anyone who pays for electricity — footing the bill.
"If the decommissioning fund goes bankrupt and the job isn't completed, they walk away and leave the cleanup to the states,” said Tim Judson, the executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
In February, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey voiced her concerns in a petition to intervene in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the pending sale of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth to Holtec.
“The proposed deal puts the health and safety of our residents at risk,” Healey said. “We’re intervening to protect the public and ensure that the transaction does not leave our state’s taxpayers on the hook for any of the costs of safely decommissioning the plant, and managing spent nuclear fuel.”
With so much money at stake, things are moving quickly:
- On May 31, Pilgrim shut down. A day earlier, Duke Energy announced it had a contract with Accelerated Decommissioning Partners (ADP), a joint venture between NorthStar and Orano USA, to dismantle its Crystal River plant in Florida. ADP says the job will be finished by 2027.
- Holtec has a pending deal to buy Indian Point in New York's Hudson Valley and just completed its takeover of Oyster Creek on Barnegat Bay, with plans to tear them down. Oyster Creek shut down in the fall and Indian Point will shut down in 2021. Indian Point’s trust fund totals $1.85 billion and Oyster Creek’s is nearly $1 billion.
- Holtec and its partners also have a pending deal to buy Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in Michigan. If the deal goes through, Holtec will own six reactors in four states.
- Northstar, meanwhile, purchased Vermont Yankee from Louisiana-based Entergy in January and is already moving ahead with demolition following a lengthy state and federal approval process.
It’s the largest number of shutdowns since the 1990s, when some of the industry’s earliest reactors powered down.
In recent years, Entergy and Exelon, the owners of Indian Point and Oyster Creek, have faced economic challenges that forced them to reconsider their investment.
The cheap price of abundant natural gas has made it difficult to compete in the energy market.
And fears of a mishap like the partial meltdown that occurred at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, coupled with disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl — the focus of a recent series on HBO — have contributed to the chorus of political opposition.
Several other struggling nuclear power plants might have shut down if they hadn’t secured state bailouts to keep them operating. In upstate New York, the state agreed to divert billions of dollars in ratepayer money to subsidize three power plants — Nine Mile Point and James A. FitzPatrick in Oswego County and R.E. Ginna near Rochester.
And in April, New Jersey regulators approved $300 million a year in subsidies so Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group can keep operating three nuclear reactors at the Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Stations in Lower Alloways Creek. The money will come out of ratepayers’ electricity bills.
Industry proponents view the latest downturn as part of the natural business cycle.
Rod McCullum, who specializes in decommissioning issues for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group for power plant owners, says last year the nation’s 98 nuclear reactors had one of their best years ever.
Over each of the past three years, energy generated by nuclear power in the U.S. has been around 805 million megawatt hours, up from about 790 million megawatt hours in 2013.
McCullum noted, however, that several older plants are being phased out as more efficient, less costly reactor designs become available.
Georgia Power is building two nuclear reactors in Augusta, a rare event in the nuclear power industry over the past 20 years.
“The nuclear industry in the future will be very different,” McCullum said. “There are a lot of advanced nuclear designs on the table and over time we will be shutting down and decommissioning the older plants. You’re starting to see a wave of that now.”
Decommissioning is not new. Several plants were decommissioned in the 1990s at places like Rancho Seco in Sacramento County, California, and Maine Yankee in Wiscasset.
What’s new are two key changes.
First, companies are forming consortiums dedicated to dismantling. Holtec has partnered with SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian company that specializes in demolitions, to create a subsidiary called Comprehensive Decommissioning International. And NorthStar, which has experience knocking down large hotels and casinos, is teaming with a company whose experience is in the nuclear industry.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the lessons learned in Maine and other sites provide a road map for how to do the job more efficiently, McCullum said. In prior years, the prevailing thought was to remove the fuel from the reactor, place it in either a cooling pool or canisters and leave the plant intact while radiation decayed. Such a process could take up to 60 years.
Not so today.
“The idea now is it’s a better use of the trust fund to get the plants down as fast as possible,” McCullum says. “That’s why you’re seeing these business deals."
These newly formed companies use a "rip and ship," which saves time and limits worker exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.
"They used to decontaminate the floor drains and it was hard to do," said Bruce Watson, who heads the NRC's decommissioning branch and has overseen shutdowns at Maine Yankee and Rancho Seco. "Now you go up, you hit it with a hammer, break the concrete, yank the pipe out and put it in a low level waste bin. You don’t waste your time cleaning it. You just measure it and put it in the bin."
Holtec has yet to do a decommissioning but is no stranger to the nuclear industry. It manufactured a wet storage system used to store spent fuel once it’s removed from the reactor.
The company began manufacturing dry storage canisters in 1994. The canisters are built from stainless and carbon steel and more than two feet of cement is added to the interior once they arrive at the power plant.
Its decommissioning plan calls for moving spent fuel out of cooling pools as soon as possible so workers can get to work tearing down contaminated buildings without unnecessary exposure to radiation. And it has applied to the NRC for permission to use a cask that will allow workers to move hotter fuel into canisters after less than three years in a cooling pool.
“By taking the spent fuel out of the pool faster it gives you the added benefit of making it almost a fully industrial decommissioning process,” said Joy Russell, Holtec’s senior vice president for business development.
Holtec has plans for an underground repository in southeastern New Mexico to hold some of the 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that’s been building up at the nation’s nuclear power plants over the past six decades. Federal officials say it’s enough to fill a football field 20 meters deep.
If successful, the plan could help resolve the nation’s nuclear fuel problem while making Holtec a lot of money.
“Holtec engineers have come up with a solution that puts that used fuel below the ground, away from the reach of terrorists, away from risks to humankind in any form,” Holtec's owner, Krishna Singh said at a 2017 event in Camden.
The occasion was the grand opening of a state-of-the-art factory built on the shores of the Delaware River, where Holtec manufactures the mammoth steel canisters that will entomb spent nuclear fuel for hundreds of years.
“If it (the New Mexico repository) becomes a reality then we will need to build 10,000 canisters,” Singh said. “That will employ thousands of people for many, many, many years.”
Like Holtec, NorthStar’s partners, Waste Control Specialists, have plans to build a storage site out West. Theirs will be in Texas, not far from the site where Holtec has decided to build.
The sites would, in theory, serve as interim storage facilities until the U.S. Department of Energy secures a permanent repository for the nation’s nuclear waste. Efforts to create a final resting ground at Yucca Mountain north of Las Vegas have stalled.
As a result, nuclear power plants have sued the federal government for leaving nuclear waste stranded at their facilities.
At the end of 2016, the Department of Energy said the federal government had already paid out $6.1 billion to the owners of spent nuclear fuel and owes another $25 billion. The amount of waste is growing by 2,200 metric tons a year and is expected to hit 140,000 metric tons over the next 50 years, the Government Accountability Office says.
The NRC will have to sign off on the repository proposals, a process that could take several years.
“The companies specializing in decommissioning don’t share their strategies with us, including whether they are interested in managing the near- and long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel, including at interim repositories they hope to build,” said Watson. “But we will be closely reviewing all of those plans both at plant-specific and holistic levels."
In May, Holtec cleared a significant hurdle in its effort to build its New Mexico facility when the NRC’s Atomic Safety Licensing Board rejected a challenge from environmental groups.
But the plan has a long way to go.
And Holtec will have to raise the money for the project. Russell said the company has already spent about $8 million on its efforts to secure an NRC license but will need much more to build.
“We haven’t made that jump yet to say we will build the facility,” Russell said during a May interview at Holtec headquarters in Camden. “As far as the construction goes, Holtec looks for funding from either the Department of Energy or utilities or some other source to begin the construction. That still has to be figured out and we’re actively working on it.”
If the funding comes through, construction would begin in 2021 and the first shipment of spent fuel would arrive in 2023.
In the meantime, back home, Holtec has been forced to answer difficult questions about how it secured some $260 million in tax incentives from New Jersey's Economic Development Authority (EDA) to build its technology campus in Camden.
On June 7, the Concerned Citizens of Lacey sent a letter to the NRC asking the federal agency to hold off on any decisions regarding Oyster Creek’s license transfer to Holtec until New Jersey state officials resolve questions raised by the award.
Earlier this month, ProPublica reported that New Jersey had put a hold on tax credits to Holtec.
"Holtec continues to have interactions with the EDA," the company said in a statement. "No notice has been received by Holtec indicating that the tax credits are frozen."
And in September Singh issued an apology after he made what some considered disparaging comments about Camden’s workforce in a published interview.
Singh immigrated to the U.S. from India in the late 1960s and received degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2007, he donated $20 million to his alma mater to help fund a nanotechnology center that bears his name.
Singh’s expertise is in heat transfer, put simply the process of turning hot things cold and hot things hotter. In the lobby of Holtec’s Camden corporate offices plaques recognize some of his 60 patents.
Russell says the company remains focused on the work ahead.
“We’re going to show the world that we can safely decommission and safely manage spent fuel storage at these sites and instill confidence in the rest of the country that nuclear is a viable option,” Russell said.
“At a time when other companies in our industry and in the U.S. in general are rolling up their carpet and closing their shops and heading overseas, we’re not,” Russell added. “We’re investing in nuclear.”
The Camden factory is the size of eight football fields and resides on a site that was home to New York Shipbuilding Corp., which shut down in 1967 after building warships for the Navy with a workforce that at its peak numbered 30,000.
It houses machines capable of bending steel plates seven inches thick, giant spinning lathes and an X-ray machine that insures every weld is leak free. On the factory floor are canisters destined for power plants across the county and overseas to Slovenia.
The factory will eventually be used to build Holtec’s modular nuclear reactors, smaller than the type currently used at power plants and less reliant on water sources. That has led some to speculate whether Holtec is looking to put the reactors into use at the nuclear power plants it plans to purchase.
For now, though, the reactors are being marketed overseas.
“That’s why we built this factory here because we fully intend to bring that small modular reactor to market,” Russell said. “Unfortunately, we don’t see a market in the United States but we have signed a memorandum of understanding with a Ukraine nuclear utility and so we’ll likely build our first small modular reactor in Ukraine.”
This report is brought to you by USA TODAY Network Northeast, a group of network news organizations based throughout New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.