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 economical 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.
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 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.
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.
The decommission of a nuclear reactor can only take place after the appropriate licence 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 report, 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 licence 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 neighbouring states.
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.
In France, decommissioning of Brennilis Nuclear Power Plant, a fairly small 70 MW power plant, already cost €480 million (20x the estimate costs) and is still pending after 20 years. Despite the huge investments in securing the dismantlement, radioactive elements such as plutonium, caesium-137 and cobalt-60 leaked out into the surrounding lake.
In the UK, decommissioning of the Windscale Advanced gas cooled reactor (WAGR), a 32 MW prototype power plant, cost €117 million. A 2013 estimate by the United Kingdom's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority predicted costs of at least £100 billion to decommission the 19 existing United Kingdom nuclear sites.
In Germany, decommissioning of Niederaichbach nuclear power plant, a 100 MW power plant, amounted to more than €143 million.
New methods for decommissioning have been developed in order to minimize the usual high decommissioning costs. One of these methods is in situ decommissioning (ISD), meaning that the reactor is entombed instead of dismantled. This method was implemented at the U.S. Department of Energy Savannah River Site in South Carolina for the closures of the P and R Reactors. With this tactic, the cost of decommissioning both reactors was $73 million. In comparison, the decommissioning of each reactor using traditional methods would have been an estimated $250 million. This results in a 71% decrease in cost by using ISD.
In 2004, in a meeting in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated the total cost for the decommissioning of all nuclear facilities. Decommissioning of all nuclear power reactors in the world would require US$187 billion; US$71 billion for fuel cycle facilities; less than US$7 billion for all research reactors; and US$640 billion for dismantling all military reactors for the production of weapons-grade plutonium, research fuel facilities, nuclear reprocessing chemical separation facilities, etc. The total cost to decommission the nuclear fission industry in the World (from 2001 to 2050) was estimated at around US$1 trillion.
In Europe there is considerable concern over the funds necessary to finance final decommissioning. In many countries either the funds do not appear sufficient to cover decommissioning and in other countries decommissioning funds are used for other activities, putting decommissioning at risk, and distorting competition with parties who do not have such funds available.
In 2016 the European Commission assessed that European Union's nuclear decommissioning liabilities were seriously underfunded by about 118 billion euros, with only 150 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 268 billion euros of expected decommissioning costs covering both dismantling of nuclear plants and storage of radioactive parts and waste. France had the largest shortfall with only 23 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 74 billion euros of expected costs.
Similar concerns exist in the United States, where the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has located apparent decommissioning funding assurance shortfalls and requested 18 power plants to address that issue. The decommissioning cost of Small modular reactors is expected to be twice as much respect to Large Reactors.
Organizations that promote the international sharing of information, knowledge, and experiences related to nuclear decommissioning include the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency and the European Atomic Energy Community. In addition, an online system called the Deactivation and Decommissioning Knowledge Management Information Tool was developed under the United States Department of Energy and made available to the international community to support the exchange of ideas and information. The goals of international collaboration in nuclear decommissioning are to reduce decommissioning costs and improve worker safety.
List of inactive or decommissioned civil nuclear reactors
A wide range of nuclear facilities have been decommissioned so far. The number of decommissioned nuclear reactors out of the List of nuclear reactors is small. As of 2016, 150 nuclear reactors were shut-off, in several early and intermediate stages (cold shut-down, defueling, SAFSTOR, internal demolition), but only 17 have been taken to fully "greenfield status". Some of these sites still host spent nuclear fuel in the form of dry casks embedded in concrete filled steel drums.
Several nuclear engineering and building demolition companies specialize in nuclear decommissioning, which has become a profitable business. More recently, construction and demolition companies in the UK have also begun to develop nuclear decommissioning services. Due to the radioactivity in the reactor structure (specially with high neutron-flux), decommissioning takes place in stages. Plans for decommissioning reactors have a time frame of decades. The long time frame makes reliable cost estimates difficult and cost overruns are common even for "quick" projects.
As of 2017, most nuclear plants operating in the United States were designed for a life of about 30–40 years and are licensed to operate for 40 years by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The average age of these reactors is 32 years. Many plants are coming to the end of their licensing period and if their licenses are not renewed, they must go through a decontamination and decommissioning process.
|Country||Location||Reactor type||Operative life||Decommissioning
|Austria||Zwentendorf||PWR 723 MWe||Never activated due to referendum in 1978|
|Belgium||SCK•CEN – BR3,
located at Mol, Belgium
|PWR (BR-3)||25 years
|Decon completed (2011)
European pilot project
(underwater cutting and remote operated tools)
Units 1, 2, 3, 4
(4 x 408 MWe)
| Reactors 1,2 closed in 2003,
reactors 3,4 closed in 2006
by European Union)
(between 1966 and 1973)
|"Static state" since 1986||stage two: |
Units A2, A3
8 x 542 MWe
(from 1974 to 2004)
|Two units currently in "cold standby"
Decommissioning to begin in 2020
|China||Beijing (CIAE)||HWWR 10 MWe (multipurpose Heavy Water Experimental Reactor for the production of plutonium and tritium)||49 years
|SAFSTOR until 2027||proposed: $6 million for dismantling |
$5 million for fuel remotion
|France||Brennilis||HWGCR 70 MWe||12 years
(fire during decommissioning in 2015)
|already spent €480 million |
(20 times the forecasted amount)
Gas cooled, graphite moderator
Units 1, 2, 3
|France||Chooz-A||PWR 300 MW||24 years
|Fully decommissioned – Greenfield
(Nuclear reactor was located inside a mountain cave)
Fast breeder nuclear reactor
| 1983: Defuelling
1987: Remotion of neutron reflectors
of sodium coolant
Accident when cleaning residual sodium in vessel with ethyl carbitol (March 31° 1994)
| The removed activity is estimated to around 4800 TBq.|
600 TBq (60Co) in 1990 still contained in 1ry vessel
The dose burden from 1987 to 1994 was 224 mSv.
Fast breeder nuclear reactor
|1) Defuelled||estimated for the future: |
|Fast breeder nuclear reactor
2) Extraction of Sodium
Pipe cutting with a robot
|estimated for the future: |
Units 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
5 x 408 MWe
| Reactors 1–5 closed in 1989/1990,
reactor 6: finished but never operated
Safstor (underwater cutting)
Units 1, 2, 3, 4
(4 x 1000 MWe)
(1st reactor 85% completed)
demolished with explosives)
(Structure in exhibition
|India||Rajasthan Atomic Power Station
|PHWR 100 MWe (similar to CANDU)||44 years
|BWR 40 MWe
Nuclear reactor with weapons-grade plutonium production capability
|(Destroyed by Israeli Air Force in 1981)||Not radioactive: never supplied with uranium|
(1978 – Closed in 1987 after referendum in 1986)
|SAFSTOR: 30 years
|€450 million (dismantling) |
+ €300 million (fuel reprocessing)
|Closed on March 1, 1982||SAFSTOR: 30 years
|Italy||Latina (Foce Verde)||Magnox
210 MWe Gas-graphite
(1962 – Closed in 1986 after referendum)
|SAFSTOR: 30 years
|Italy||Trino Vercellese||PWR Westinghouse,
(Closed in 1986 after referendum)
|SAFSTOR: 30 years
|BWR 439 MWe||November 17, 1970 - March 11, 2011||Since 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11
Hydrogen explosion (INES 7)
|Estimated at ¥10 trillion (US$100 billion) for decontaminating Fukushima and dismantling all reactors in Japan and considering long time damage to environment and economy, including agriculture, cattle breeding, fishery, water potabilization, tourism, lost of reputation in the world |
(without considering further health care spending and reduction of life expectancy).
|BWR 760 MWe||December 24, 1973 - March 11, 2011|
|BWR 760 MWe||October 26, 1974 - March 11, 2011|
|BWR 760 MWe||February 24, 1978 - March 11, 2011||Since March 11, 2011
Reactor defueled when tsunami hit
Damage to spent fuel cooling-pool
|BWR 760 MWe||September 22, 1977 - March 11, 2011||Planned decommissioning
Cold shutdown since March 11, 2011
|BWR 1067 MWe||May 4, 1979 - March 11, 2011||Planned decommissioning
Cold shutdown since March 11, 2011
|BWR 1067 MWe||July 31, 1981 - 11 March 2011||Planned decommissioning
Cold shutdown since March 11, 2011
|Japan||Fugen||Advanced thermal reactor
(MOX fuel core,
|1979 – 2003||Cold shutdown|
|Magnox (GCR) 160 MWe||1966 – 1998||Safstore: 10 years
(€660 million of 2003)
(reactor for the production of nuclear weapons through PUREX treatment)
Deactivated after a treaty
|SAFSTOR: cooling tower dismantled|
SAFSTOR: 40 years
|PUREX plant for
|Several severe incidents
| Three plutonium reactors
Plant for uranium enrichment
|Two fast-breeder reactors closed (of three),
after disarmaments agreements with USA in 2003.
Units 1, 2
2 X 440 MWe
1 x 160 MWe
Objective: green field in 2018
|Spain||Santa María de Garoña
1 x 466 MWe
(by Dutch RDM)
|1966 - 2013
(possible restart, since reactor vessel
is in good conditions)
Asked for renewal of license, until 2031
fire in a turbogenerator
|SAFSTOR: 30 years
|Phases 1 and 2: €93 million|
Units 1, 2
|BWR 2 x 615 MW|| Reactor 1: 24 years 1975 – 1999
Reactor 2: 28 years 1977 – 2005
|SAFSTOR: demolition will begin in 2020||The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority has assessed that the costs for decommissioning and final disposal for the Swedish nuclear power industry may be underestimated by SKB by at least 11 billion Swedish crowns ($1.63 billion)|
|Switzerland||LUCENS||8,3 MWe CO2-heavy water
Incident: fire in 1969
|Entombment for ? years
SAFSTOR and Decon: 24 years
(Light water pool)
|In public display since inauguration|
then graphite fire (1986)
(armed concrete "sarcophagus")
|Past: ? |
Future: riding sarcophagus in steel
(2 x 138 MWe)
|SAFSTOR: 30 years
2 x 121 MWe
|1962–2002||SAFSTOR: 30 years
|United Kingdom||Dounreay: DMTR
(Research facility of UKAEA)
|Fast-neutron reactor||1958 - 1969||Demolition conract awarded December 2018|
|United Kingdom||Dounreay: DFR
(Research facility of UKAEA)
|Loop-type fast breeder.||1959 - 1977||Defueling|
|United Kingdom||Dounreay: PFR
(Research facility of UKAEA)
|Pool-type fast breeder cooled by liquid sodium, fueled with MOX.250 MWe.||1974 – 1994
(with average 26.9% load)
Delays and reliability problems before reaching full power.
|Remotely operated robot 'Reactorsaurus' will be sent in to decontaminate equipment as too dangerous a task for a human. Control panel has been earmarked for an exhibition at London Science Museum (2016).|
4 x 60 MWe
first nuclear power station.
|August 27, 1956 – March 31, 2003 (World's first nuclear power station to generate electrical power on an industrial scale ) The first reactor had been in use for 47 years.||SAFSTOR: 30 years
4 x 60 MWe
("sister reactor" to Calderhall)
|1959 – 2004||SAFSTOR: 30 years
Research area of
1958 to 1990.
|All nine reactors mostly dismantled|
|United States||Crystal River 3
Plant scheduled to restart in April 2011, but the project encountered a number of delays. After repairs, additional delamination began to occur in adjacent bays. Duke Energy announced in Feb-2013 that the Crystal River NPP would be permanently shut down.
|From 2015 to 2019 in defueling.
expected SAFSTOR 2019–2067
Decommissioning Periods (Start – End); Duration (years)
|Defueled in safety in 1998
now in SAFSTOR
Fuel in on-site dry-casks.
|United States||Fort St. Vrain GS
|Immediate Decon||$195 million|
|United States||Rancho Seco NGS
|PWR 913 MWe||12 years
(Closed after a referendum in 1989)
|SAFSTOR: 5–10 years
completed in 2009
Fuel in insite long-term dry-cask storage
|$538.1 million |
|United States||Three Mile Island
|PWR 913 MWe||1978-1979
Core fusion incident
Phase 2 (1979)
|$805 million |
|BWR 60 MWe||25 years
(closed in 1989)
dismantled in 5 years
(first small experimental reactor)
|United States||San Onofre NGS Unit 1
|PWR 436 MWe Westinghouse Electric Corporation||25 years
|Reactor dismantled and used as a storage site for spent fuel.|
|United States||San Onofre NGS Units 2, 3
|2 x PWR 1,075 MWe||Unit 2: 1983 – 2013
Unit 3: 1984 – 2013
In 2011, Edison finished replacing the steam generators in both reactors with improved Mitsubishi ones, but the new design had several problems, cracked, causing leaks and vibrations.
|Permanent shutdown – DECON
|2014 cost forecast: |
to $4.4 billion
|United States||Piqua NGS
|OCM (Organically Cooled/Moderated) reactor 46 MWe||2 years
(closed in 1966)
(coolant design inadequate for neutron flux)
|PWR 1,180 MWe||16 years
(Closed in 1993 because of proximity to seismic fault)
(cooling tower demolished in 2006)
|United States||Yankee Rowe
|PWR 185 MW||31 years
|Decon completed – Demolished
(greenfield open to visitors)
|$608 million with $8 million per year upkeep|
|United States||Maine Yankee||PWR
(closed in 1996)
|Decon completed – Demolished in 2004
(greenfield open to visitors)
|United States||Vermont Yankee||BWR 620 MWe
|United States||Exelon –
Units 1, 2
|2 x PWR 1040 MWe
||$900–1,100 million |
|United States||Pacific Gas & Electric –
|BWR 63 MWe||13 years
(Shut down per seismic retrofit)
|On July 2, 1976, Humboldt Bay Power Plant (HBPP) Unit 3 was shut down for annual refueling and to conduct seismic modifications. In 1983, updated economic analyses indicated that restarting Unit 3 would probably not be cost-effective, and in June 1983, PG&E announced its intention to decommission the unit. On July 16, 1985, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued Amendment No. 19 to the HBPP Unit 3 Operating License to change the status to possess-but-not-operate, and the plant was placed into a SAFSTOR status.||Unknown – Closure date: December 31, 2015|
Decommissioning of ships, mobile reactors, and military reactors
Many warships and a few civil ships have used nuclear reactors for propulsion. Former Soviet and American warships have been taken out of service and their power plants removed or scuttled. Dismantling of Russian submarines and ships and American submarines and ships is ongoing. Marine power plants are generally smaller than land-based electrical generating stations.
The biggest American military nuclear facility for the production of weapons-grade plutonium was Hanford site (in the State of Washington), now defueled, but in a slow and problematic process of decontamination, decommissioning, and demolition. There is "the canyon", a large structure for the chemical extraction of plutonium with the PUREX process. There are also many big containers and underground tanks with a solution of water, hydrocarbons and uranium-plutonium-neptunium-cesium-strontium (all highly radioactive). With all reactors now defueled, some were put in SAFSTOR (with their cooling towers demolished). Several reactors have been declared National Historic Landmarks.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nuclear decommissioning.|
- Benjamin K. Sovacool. "A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia", Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2010, p. 373.
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- Liability for Nuclear Damage
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- DECON: a method of decommissioning, in which structures, systems, and components that contain radioactive contamination are removed from a site and safely disposed at a commercially operated low-level waste disposal facility, or decontaminated to a level that permits the site to be released for unrestricted use shortly after it ceases operation.
- SAFSTOR: a method of decommissioning in which a nuclear facility is placed and maintained in a condition that allows the facility to be safely stored and subsequently decontaminated (deferred decontamination) to levels that permit release for unrestricted use.
- ENTOMB: a method of decommissioning, in which radioactive contaminants are encased in a structurally long-lived material, such as concrete. The entombed structure is maintained and surveillance is continued until the entombed radioactive waste decays to a level permitting termination of the license and unrestricted release of the property. During the entombment period, the licensee maintains the license previously issued by the NRC.
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- Nuclear Decommissioning Report (www.ndreport.com) is the multi-media platform for the nuclear decommissioning industry.
- decommissioning.info is a portal with information on nuclear decommissioning
- US Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- European website on decommissioning of nuclear installations
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- Master 'Nuclear Energy' – Decommissioning and Waste management