VISAGINAS, Lithuania — The parking lot outside the atomic power plant is weedy and potholed. Bus stops that once teemed with hundreds of workers are eerily empty.
Yet the stillness at Ignalina, a Lithuanian nuclear plant built in the 1980s Soviet era, belies an unsettling fact: There is still nuclear fuel inside one of its two reactors, three years after it was shut due to safety concerns.
A temporary storage facility for spent fuel and radioactive waste is four years behind schedule, creating a money drain at a time when the 27-nation European Union grapples with a crippling economic crisis.
States don’t need EU permission to build nuclear plants, but they need to abide by its safety rules and the problems at Ignalina have provoked threats from the EU to cut the funding promised for dismantling it.
That raises concerns that the facility will be around for years, possibly decades, longer than planned. Ignalina is turning out to be a hard lesson for Europe: It’s one thing to kill a nuclear power station; getting rid of the remains is another headache entirely.
Many experts downplay safety risks in delays to dismantling Ignalina and two other communist-era plants in Slovakia and Bulgaria, but that is little comfort to nearby residents who fear risks of a radioactive leak will only grow with time.
Dormant nuclear facilities could potentially pose a tantalizing prize for terrorists or smugglers of nuclear materials, and experts point to another worry: Only a handful of reactors worldwide have been fully dismantled, meaning the process is largely uncharted territory. Tearing apart reactor cores, for instance, creates unknown challenges and potential risks given the level of radiation inside them.
Steven Thomas, an energy expert at Britain’s Greenwich University, says taking apart the core will likely require robots that are not yet invented. “The robots we have at the moment won’t do it because the levels of radioactivity will send them berserk,” he said.
Ignalina presents particular challenges. The nuclear fuel rod bundles, at 7 meters (23 feet), are twice as long as those in conventional plants and must be sawed in half to fit into storage casts.
Continue reading at Aging nuke plants add to Europe’s economic woes
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