PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Companies specializing in the handling of radioactive material are buying retired U.S. nuclear reactors from utilities and promising to clean them up and demolish them in dramatically less time than usual — eight years instead of 60, in some cases.
Turning nuclear plants over to outside companies and decommissioning them on such a fast track represents a completely new approach in the United States, never before carried to completion in this country, and involves new technology as well.
Supporters say the accelerated method can get rid of a hazard more quickly and return the land to productive use sooner. But regulators, activists and others question whether the rapid timetables are safe and whether the companies have the expertise and the financial means to do the job.
"We were up in arms that it was 60 years," Janet Tauro, head of the environmental group New Jersey Clean Water Action, said of the initial plans for decommissioning the Oyster Creek plant. "And then we hear it's going to be expedited to eight years. It's great to get it over with, but are there corners that are going to be cut?"
Once a reactor is shut down, the radioactive mess must be cleaned up, spent nuclear fuel packed for long-term storage and the plant itself dismantled. The most common approach can last decades, with the plant placed in a long period of dormancy while radioactive elements slowly decay.
Spent fuel rods that can no longer sustain a nuclear reaction remain radioactive and still generate substantial heat. They are typically placed in pools of water to cool, staying there for at least five years, with 10 years the industry norm, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After that, they are removed and placed in giant cylindrical casks, typically made of steel and encased in concrete.
But Holtec International, which in the past year has been buying up several retired or soon-to-be-retired nuclear plants in the U.S., has designed a cask it says can accept spent fuel after only two years of cooling.
Holtec, a corporation with more than 30 years of experience in handling radioactive waste, struck a deal last year to buy Oyster Creek in Forked River, New Jersey, from its owner, Exelon Generation.
It also has deals in place to buy several plants owned by Entergy Corp., including: Pilgrim, in historic Plymouth, Massachusetts, closing May 31; Palisades, in Covert, Michigan, set to shut down in 2022 ; and two reactors expected to close within two years at Indian Point in Buchanan, New York.
"Our commitment to the nuclear industry includes taking ownership of shutdown nuclear plants so that we can safely and efficiently decommission the plants so that the land can be returned to productive use," Holtec spokeswoman Joy Russell said in an email.
The proposed sales await NRC approval, with decisions expected in the coming weeks and months.
Similarly, in January, NorthStar Group Services, a specialist in nuclear demolition, completed the purchase of Vermont Yankee from Entergy with plans for its accelerated decommissioning.
The full financial details of the pending deals have not been disclosed. But if the agreements are approved, Holtec will inherit the multibillion-dollar decommissioning trust funds set up by the utilities for the plants' eventual retirement.
The company would be able to keep anything left over in each fund after the plant's cleanup. Holtec and Northstar are also banking on the prospect of recouping money from the federal government for storing spent fuel during and after the decommissioning, because there is no national disposal site for high-level nuclear waste.
The companies jumping into the business believe they can make in profit. For the utilities, such deals free them from having to oversee long, complex projects involving decades of work and round-the-clock guarding of the dangerous waste.
While there are risks in transferring spent fuel too quickly, experts also note there are dangers while the fuel rods are sitting in the pools, including the chances of a catastrophic fire or leak resulting from a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other event.
"There's a natural tendency to say, 'Oh, they're doing it fast, they're going to make mistakes, it's not going to be safe,'" said Rod McCullum, senior director of decommissioning and used fuel at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group for nuclear power. "You're actually getting safer by getting faster."
In legal briefs filed with the NRC, however, Massachusetts state officials have expressed skepticism about Holtec's plan to decommission Pilgrim on an expedited schedule "never before achieved." Holtec has never managed a decommissioning start to finish.
Holtec has come under scrutiny over its role in a mishap last August during the somewhat less aggressive decommissioning of the San Onofre plant in Southern California, where two reactors were retired in 2013 and the estimated completion date is 2030.
Holtec contractors were lowering a 45-ton spent fuel cask into an underground storage vault at San Onofre when it became misaligned and nearly plunged 18 feet, investigators said. No radiation was released.
Federal regulators fined Southern California Edison, the plant's owner, $116,000, and an investigation found that some Holtec procedures had been inadequate or not properly followed.
Massachusetts officials have stopped short of asking the NRC to block Pilgrim's sale but have cited the California incident while questioning whether the money in Pilgrim's decommissioning trust fund is sufficient to cover unexpected delays or overruns.
By Holtec's accounting, the Pilgrim decommissioning will cost an estimated $1.13 billion, leaving $3.6 million in the fund. State officials have described that cushion as "meager" and have warned of "significant health, safety, environmental, financial and economic risks."
Holtec said its equipment has never been involved in a major accident and stands by its cost estimates.
Pilgrim, which is along scenic, environmentally sensitive Cape Cod Bay and is being retired after 47 years, has a history of unscheduled shutdowns and was only recently removed from an NRC list of the nation's least safe reactors .
The citizen group Pilgrim Watch, which has long pushed for the closing of the plant, is leery of what lies ahead during the decommissioning.
"The story isn't over. There's a sequel," said Mary Lampert, the organization's director. "And sometimes the sequel, like in the movies, is worse than the main show."