The trouble with Europe’s Nuclear Decommissioning plan

With truly little hands on experience and historical data to help cost estimates, nuclear power plant operators in Europe are tasked with the overly complex task of planning and executing the decommissioning of majority of its reactors. How do you tackle something you have never done before?

By 2050, we  will witness the decommissioning of over 70% of the world’s total number of nuclear power plants , i.e. approximately between 200-400 nuclear reactors, as most of them are reaching the end of their lifespan. With over 90 nuclear reactors being permanently shut down in the EU, there lies ahead an arduous and complex task.

Experts estimate the global nuclear decommissioning market services at US$5.82 billion in 2019 to grow at a CAGR of 6.3% from 2020 to 2027.

Germany’s bid to move way from nuclear power

Germany has been at the frontier of Europe’s mission to reduce pollution from nuclear energy. They expedited their plans to shut down around eight of their plants after the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown in Japan in 2011. The European Commission has capped the cost for Germany’s future decommissioning plans at €38 billion–€22 billion for decommissioning their power plants and €16 billion for the storage of waste.

With Germany firmly on track on its Energiewende plan, the country is working on retiring the remaining plants and in making 80% of its gross electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2050.

Where is Germany’s nuclear waste?

All the waste, such as uranium mill tailings, used reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes from the decommissioned NPPs are kept away in “safe enclosure” because of the immediate dismantling of NPPs in Germany; a trend widely seen in Europe. This passive waste disposal technique of thousands of tons of accumulated radioactive waste within their land is giving rise to concerns about its safe storage.

France’s Colossal Decommissioning mission

France has by far the highest number of nuclear plants (56+) in its soil that provide around three-quarters of the country’s power. With the passing of the ‘Energy Transition for Green Growth’ act in 2015, France took the bold step to decrease its share of nuclear power from 75 to 50% by 2025 and earmarked €23 billion for it.

EDF Energy has estimated the cost of decommissioning its nuclear fleet at €350 million ($371.6 million) per reactor, far lower than the cost estimates by European operators which range between €900 million and €1.3 billion per reactor, in their latest report. The immediate challenge for EDF is to lower nuclear power capacity from 75% of generation to 50% by 2025. This shows France’s medium-term commitment to divest itself of its nuclear assets.

What are the key challenges for Europe in Nuclear Decommissioning?

Looking at the German and French take on decommissioning, there are three important challenges.

Cost Management

From the first wave of dismantling projects undertaken in the US and Canada, the OECD survey reported a range of actual and expected costs from $0.83 to $1.28 million per MWe for the US reactors 500-600 MWe, and from $0.21 to $0.59 million per MWe for reactors around 1100 MWe.  In effect, the more powerful the reactor is, the cheaper it gets to decommissioning per MWe.

Waste Management

What perhaps adds to the overall cost is the economical handling of radioactive waste from decommissioned reactors. Nuclear waste from Germany’s decommissioned nuclear power plants, for example, have stowed away after treatment in containers called CASTORS left undisturbed for “one million years”. The controversy and the financial strain caused by this high-level waste disposal might prove to be the toughest challenge of the Energiewende.

Lack of Expertise or Experience in Nuclear Decommissioning

An entire generation of nuclear power plants built in the 1960s and 1970s in western Europe are reaching the end of its working life. The US, Canada market brings in a mature market for decommissioning as over 20 U.S. nuclear reactors are in different stages of the decommissioning process and there are 19 operational reactors in Canada set to close by the late 2030s. Minimal decommissioning know-how coupled with the lack of a standardised and affordable organizational model for the development of new nuclear capacity is perhaps holding back the European nuclear energy sector.

Benchmarking best-practices in Nuclear Decommissioning & Waste Management

On 20th & 21st April 2021 Prospero Events Group brings together nuclear decommissioning and waste management experts at the virtual conference- “Nuclear Decommissioning and Waste Management”. Join our focused meet to get all your questions about waste, cost and project management answered by the best practitioners.