Nuclear power stirs considerable controversy but we have broadly been a supporter of the technology in part because of its low emissions and running cost, but the industry had arguably their biggest challenge starkly highlighted this week in the International Energy Agency’s annual report.
By 2040, the agency said, almost 200 reactors are due to be shut down with considerable uncertainties over the decommissioning costs. An FT article quotes $100 billion for plant dismantling but the extent to which this is just the beginning is highlighted by a quote from Paul Dorfman of the Energy Institute at University College London who said, “The UK’s own decommissioning and waste disposal costs are estimated at £85 billion ($135 billion) alone.”
As the UK only has 16 reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association, the permanent disposal costs of high level nuclear waste clearly make up an even larger proportion of shut-down costs than the plant decommissioning. Governments the world over have consistently turned a blind eye to the issue of permanent and secure long-term storage of high level waste. The article quotes some 60 years after the first nuclear power plant started operation, no country has yet opened a permanent disposal facility for commercial high-level waste.
New nuclear plants have to, as part of their planning approval, have in place a funded decommissioning strategy, but the waste, itself, invariably reverts to the government at the end of the process. If the industry has any future it has to encourage governments to find a solution to this issue. It is entirely possible that as the rate of decommissioning rises new technologies will be developed to condense low level waste to take up a minimum of space and to “lock” high waste into forms that can be safely stored for hundreds of years, costs will come down in the process but even so the issue remains, like the Ancient Mariner’s Albatross, a curse on the industry and on both public and investor enthusiasm for the technology.