More than 50 years into the age of nuclear energy, one of the biggest growth opportunities may be junking old reactors.
Entergy Corp. (ETR) said Aug. 27 it will close its 41-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in 2014, making the reactor the fifth unit in the U.S. marked for decommissioning within the past 12 months, a record annual total. Companies that specialize in razing nuclear plants and hauling away radioactive waste are poised to benefit.
Disposal work is “where companies are going to make their fortune,” Margaret Harding, an independent nuclear-industry consultant based in Wilmington, North Carolina, said in an phone interview. Contractors that are usually involved in building reactors, including Bechtel Group Inc. and URS Corp. (URS), “are going to be looking very hard at the decommissioning side of it.”
The physical work involved in tearing down a nuclear plant takes about 10 years, according to John Hickman, a project manager in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decommissioning branch. The agency gives reactor owners 60 years to complete decommissioning, which it defines as permanently removing a plant from service and reducing radioactivity enough for the property to be used for another purpose.
Razing a plant is tricky business. Radiation can seep into the concrete, pipes and metal of plant structures, and workers need to be able to break down the units without exposing themselves, or the public, to contamination. Plants often sit idle for decades before being torn down in order to let radioactive material decay.
During a reactor decommissioning, the plant operator transfers radioactive fuel rods to cooling pools and, ultimately, to so-called dry casks for storage. Workers clean contaminated surfaces by sandblasting, chemical sprays and hydrolasing, a process that involves high-pressure water blasts, according to King.
“You do get to a point that you need someone to come in that has the equipment and the technology to actually dismantle the components,” she said. “That typically is hired out.”
When such work begins at a plant, it can create business for companies including EnergySolutions Inc. of Salt Lake City and Waste Control Specialists LLC of Dallas, both closely held, and US Ecology Inc. (ECOL) of Boise, Idaho. The companies dispose of low-level radioactive waste, including components and buildings at nuclear power plants.
The work doesn’t include removing the 65,000 tons of radioactive fuel that are now stored at about 75 operating and closed reactor sites across the country.