The nuclear power industry is developing retirement plans for its aging reactors. California's Pacific Gas & Electric Company, for example, recently began setting aside $53.2 million a year to pay for scrapping its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant three decades from now. Allowing for inflation, the company will have more than $3.8 billion in the kitty when it comes time for the final shutdown.
The impetus behind such measures comes from state regulators, who until now have decided how local utilities will cover the costs of decommissioning nuclear plants.
The result is a patchwork of funding plans - some of which, critics say, could leave projects unfunded. Federal policymakers are now drafting rules that would standardize the requirements. At the same time, questions remain about whether the technology will be sufficient to handle the breaking up of large-scale plants.
``The technological challenge isn't necessarily insurmountable,'' says Ruth Caplan, director of the Environmental Action Foundation. ``But it's certainly going to be expensive.''
The United States, with the world's oldest and largest nuclear power program, is among the first to confront the problem. Sweden, West Germany, and Britain also have plants at or near the end of their productive lives. By the year 2010, there could be as many as 66 US plants ready for retirement.
Nobody knows for sure what it will cost to dismantle a big nuclear plant. Various factors influence costs, such as the age and size of the facility.
Some analysts have suggested that plants should be decontaminated and then left to sit for several decades, allowing some of the radiation embedded in the concrete and steel to decay in place. But this would also involve additional costs, since the plant would have to be constantly guarded and maintained.
``The most expensive type of decommissioning is the one that everyone is planning to do - moving in immediately and breaking up the plant for removal and burial,'' says Frank Graham, vice-president of the Atomic Industrial Forum.
Mr. Graham says each plant should be examined individually to determine the cost of dismantling. But he says a ballpark figure for tearing down a big facility is about $200 million.
So far, only one commercial power station - the 72-megawatt Shippingport facility near Pittsburgh - has actually begun the long process of decommissioning.
Experts emphasize, however, the difference in scale between this small reactor and the 1,000-megawatt reactors now commonly used. Rather than busting up Shippingport's 10-meter-high (about 32 feet) steel reactor vessel, for example, workers will encase it in concrete and transport it by barge to a dump in Washington state. Large reactors will almost certainly need to be broken up for transportation, requiring special remote-control metal-cutting equipment to protect workers from exposure to radiation.
Despite its small size, Shippingport is no bargain. It will cost the Department of Energy about $100 million to decommission the plant. The Energy Department has a special arrangement with the utility to dispose of the plant, since it was one of the nation's first commercial nuclear facilities and served as a demonstration.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), charged with overseeing the nuclear industry, has proposed rules that would require all utilities to develop plans for funding the shutdown of used plants.
But the proposal has attracted criticism from nearly all sides, particularly a provision in the rule that estimates the cost of decommissioning at $100 million in 1984 dollars.
William Voigt, director of the Department of Energy's office of remedial action and waste technology, told a House subcommittee last week that the NRC is responsible for establishing regulations for the technical and financial aspects of decommissioning. However, he also pointed out that cost estimates for decommissioning are often well above the level established by the NRC.
Critics also focus on the type of funding mechanism that the NRC will permit. Some states allow utilities to collect money for decommissioning which is mixed with general company revenue. Eleven states require utilities to establish external funds for the money that is then managed by an outsider and not available for general use. ``We are absolutely opposed to internal and unsegregated funding,'' says Ms. Caplan of the Environmental Action Foundation. Activists are pushing to get the NRC to specify that only external funding mechanisms can be used.
Industry officials, meanwhile, say new technologies could significantly extend the life of today's reactors and delay the day of decision on decommissioning. But the ultimate problem remains - what to do with large facilities, parts of which are radioactive.
Experts point out that the cost of disposing of low-level nuclear waste has risen over 1,900 percent in the last decade. Most of the rubbish generated during decommissioning would fall into this category. At the same time, there is still no national repository for high-level nuclear waste, such as spent fuel rods.
``Until somebody figures out what to do with the waste, it'll just sit in storage,'' says Cynthia Pollock, author of a 1986 report on decommissioning, by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.
An article in yesterday's Monitor reported that the US's Shippingport nuclear power plant was the world's oldest. The world's oldest commercial nuclear power station is Britain's Sellafield, which started up in 1951. Note: The article says no such thing, but the ``correction'' was handled in the usual way.