THE catch phrase of the 1970s, "Try it, you'll like it," is
proving costly for those who tried nuclear power and didn't.
Of the 13 nuclear power plants halted in the United States since
1963, none has completed the lengthy decontamination and dismantling
process known formally as "decommissioning."
Of these plants, officials at the four largest - Three-Mile
Island in Middleton, Pa.; Fort St. Vrain in Colorado; Shoreham in
Suffolk County, N.Y.; and Rancho Seco in 1989 - estimate the cost of
the shutdowns will range from $200 million to $320 million and the
process will take decades. The facilities are closing due to safety
and cost concerns.
"When you shut down a nuclear power reactor, you can't just turn
off the lights and go home," notes Peter Erickson, senior project
manager for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Besides monitoring the cooling of spent fuel in on-site water
pools (there are still no temporary or permanent federal storage
sites), most facility licensees elect to wait 30 to 50 years for the
most radioactive elements in pipes, floors, and walls to decay. This
reduces the danger of exposure to radiation for workers dismantling
Only then will the physical plant be demolished or converted to
For the shareholders of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District
(SMUD), their Rancho Seco nuclear power plant here is the latest
case-in-point. Twenty-five miles south of the state capital, Rancho
Seco is the first major nuclear reactor to be closed by public
referendum. Though power generation was stopped the day after a
public vote in June 1989, the plant is still in the final phase of a
preliminary closure process. Early next year, it will enter formal
In 1963, a General Electric plant in Alameda, Calif., was the
first reactor to be decommissioned. The shutdown process is still
ongoing. No fuel is on site, but the physical plant is being
monitored for levels of radioactivity in pipes, walls, and valves to
allow a significant reduction in radiation levels before
The nuclear waste produced during 14 years of operation at Rancho
Seco is enough to fill about 25 train boxcars. While it is kept cool
in a water pool here, the Department of Energy (DOE) is considering
a national repository for spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Even if the decade-long study process there shows the site
capable of isolating nuclear waste safely for the necessary 10,000
years, the site would not be ready until 2010.
Meanwhile, the 200-plus maintenance, security, and emergency
personnel on-site here will cost SMUD nearly $320 million by the
plant's license expiration in 2008.
For the short-term, federal nuclear-waste negotiator David Leroy
is negotiating sites of temporary storage known as monitored
retrievable sites in various states.
"If such a temporary site is located and approved by 1998, our
waste would go there," says SMUD's Jim Shetler. …