The dangerous business of dismantling America’s aging nuclear plants

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Douglas MacMillan, May 13, 2022 — Washington Post

Accidents at New Jersey’s Oyster Creek power plant have spurred calls for stricter oversight of the burgeoning nuclear decommissioning industry

FORKED RIVER, N.J. — The new owner took over the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in 2019, promising to dismantle one of the nation’s oldest nuclear plants at minimal cost and in record time. Then came a series of worrisome accidents.

One worker was struck by a 100-ton metal reactor dome. Another was splashed with radioactive water, according to internal incident reports and regulatory inspection reports reviewed by The Washington Post. Another worker drove an excavator into an electrical wire on his first day on the job, knocking out power to 31,000 homes and businesses on the New Jersey coast, according to a police report and the local power company.

All three incidents occurred on the watch of Holtec International, a nuclear equipment manufacturer based in Jupiter, Fla. Though the company until recently had little experience shutting down nuclear plants, Holtec has emerged as a leader in nuclear cleanup, a burgeoning field riding an expected wave of closures as licenses expire for the nation’s aging nuclear fleet.

Over the past three years, Holtec has purchased three plants in three states and expects to finalize a fourth this summer. The company is seeking to profitably dismantle them by replacing hundreds of veteran plant workers with smaller, less-costly crews of contractors and eliminating emergency planning measures, documents and interviews show. While no one has been seriously injured at Oyster Creek, the missteps are spurring calls for stronger government oversight of the entire cleanup industry.

In the nearly three years Holtec has owned Oyster Creek, regulators have documented at least nine violations of federal rules, including the contaminated water mishap, falsified weapons inspection reports and other unspecified security lapses. That’s at least as many as were found over the preceding 10 years at the plant, when it was owned by Exelon, one of the nation’s largest utility companies, according to The Post’s review of regulatory records.

Joseph Delmar, a spokesman for Holtec, defended the company’s record, saying it takes safety and security seriously. The recent incidents “are not reflective of the organization’s culture,” he said, adding that the worker who knocked down the power line “did not follow the proper safety protocols.” Delmar said the company has decades of experience building equipment to store nuclear waste and employs veteran plant workers to dismantle reactor sites.

“While the decommissioning organization may seem new, the professionals staffing the company are experienced nuclear professionals with intimate knowledge of the plants they work at,” Delmar said in an emailed statement.

Holtec is, however, pioneering an experimental new business model. During the lifetime of America’s 133 nuclear reactors, ratepayers paid small fees on their monthly energy bills to fill decommissioning trust funds, intended to cover the eventual cost of deconstructing the plants. Trust funds for the country’s 94 operating and 14 nonoperating nuclear reactors now total about $86 billion, according to Callan, a San Francisco-based investment consulting firm.

After a reactor is dismantled and its site cleared, some of these trust funds must return any money left over to ratepayers. But others permit cleanup companies to keep any surplus as profit — creating incentives to cut costs at sites that house some of the most dangerous materials on the planet.

Even after reactors are shut down, long metal rods containing radioactive pellets — known as spent fuel — are stored steps away, in cooling pools and steel-and-concrete casks. Nuclear safety experts say that an industrial accident or a terrorist attack at any of these sites could result in a radiological release with severe impacts to workers and nearby residents, as well as to the environment.

Read more (original news story on Washington Post)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.