By David Giambusso 5:50 a.m. | Oct. 16, 2015
One doesn’t have to look hard in New York and throughout the region to see that the nuclear power industry has hit a rough patch.
The James FitzPatrick nuclear plant in Oswego County may be closing. The Ginna plant is on life support. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he wants to close Indian Point.
Those closings and potential closings, combined with closure of Vermont Yankee in December and the announcement this month that Pilgrim in Massachusetts would be shuttered, herald what nuclear experts say is a denouement to the story of nuclear power in the United States.
"I would call it an organic phaseout," said Mycle Schneider, a nuclear consultant based in Paris, during a conference at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Thursday. "Nuclear’s position is threatened by a number of factors."
Among those threats, he and others said, are the increasing costs of safely providing nuclear power, stagnant demand, a decrease in electricity use, and "ferocious competitors," including natural gas and renewable power.
The question for state and federal regulators becomes how to safely and efficiently retire the nation’s nuclear fleet, a task infinitely more complex than getting rid of a typical power plant.
"In the time period around 2030 you have this massive drop-off in reactors," said Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Within 50 years, the nation’s 99 nuclear plants will be retired and only five new ones are in the current pipeline.
"What does that mean for decommissioning?" Jaczko asked.
Nuclear plants are required to maintain decommissioning trust funds, accounts that they pay into each year to provide for the safe removal of spent nuclear fuel and remediation of the sites when the plants are taken off-line. But experts said on Thursday that the time frame for decommissioning — typically 60 years — will lead to a series of complications for the industry even with fully funded decommissioning accounts.
For one thing, the industry will require a new set of skills to take the plants down. The NRC itself is funded by fees plants pay — funds that will dry up when plants are closed.
"Ninety percent of the NRC operating budget comes from reactor fees," Jaczko said. "So those five plants that would make up the fleet in 40 or 50 years would now share the burden in maintaining the budget of the agency that a hundred plants are now paying."
Jaczko said the 60-year time line doesn’t make sense from a safety perspective. One of the original rationales was that waiting that long was necesarry to minimize radiation exposure to workers, but, he said, "95 percent of the dose reduction you would get happens in the first 30 years."
"From a technical perspective and a safety perspective there really is no rationale for a 60-year waste disposal."
The real rationale, he said, is money.
"When you push people on these factors, they come back with ’We can’t decommission sooner because we don’t have the money,’" Jaczko said.
John Sipos, an assistant state attorney general, said that waiting 60 years does not provide any additional financial security, but rather extended the risk to taxpayers and power customers.
"There’s the larger question: will the responsible party be there in 60 years and if they’re there in 60 years , will they have the money?" Sipos said.
Many in the industry rely on a 2 percent rate of return in the decommissioning trust funds, a return that is not guaranteed. Moreover, Sipos said it’s difficult to figure the cost of decommissioning until the process actually begins.
"At Connecticut Yankee to the east of us it was quite more expensive than folks thought," he said, referring to a nuclear facility shut down in 1996. "You’re looking at costs that were $1 billion or more."
NPR reported that less than a year after the shuttering of Vermont Yankee there already is consternation about how its $660 million trust fund is being spent, and whether Vermonters will ever see any of that money returned as they say they were promised.
Sipos said that the ground beneath Indian Point’s Units 1 and 2 alone contained 1.5 million cubic feet of contaminated soil.
Entergy owns the Vermont Yankee site as well as Indian Point, FitzPatrick and Pilgrim
Spokesman Jerry Nappi responded to the concerns expressed about Indian Point and decommissioning in general.
"All U.S. nuclear plants are required by law to set aside funding for the eventual decommissioning of each reactor," Nappi said in an email to POLITICO New York. "The three Indian Point units have a pre-funded decommissioning trust fund in place that meets the funding assurance requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Entergy has a demonstrated commitment to meet required funding assurance guidelines and will take any necessary steps to safely decommission its plants at the appropriate time."
As of August, Entergy had trust funds equaling $1.6 billion for the three Indian Point reactors.
Sipos and Peter Bradford, New York’s former public service commissioner, said states should be acting now to make sure the proper safeguards are in place when nuclear plants retire.
"Hosting an unproductive brownfield for generations or using scarce resources to clean up that site — what are the states going to be able to assume?" Sipos said.
Bradford said states should be gaining clarity about decommissioning law and regulation before plants retire rather than after.
"Whether and when the land is to be suitable for other uses ... is not fundamentally a federal matter," Bradford said. "I’m perplexed that many states are so deferential to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."