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Callaway nuclear power plant balances decommission funds

Friday, July 24, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:37 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 24, 2009
Water vapor rises from the cooling tower of the Callaway County nuclear plant. "Many people think we're polluting the air, but it's actually just water vapor that is generated from the process of cooling the plant's water supply," said communications coordinator John Bassford.

AmerenUE's nuclear plant in Callaway County is licensed to generate electricity through 2024, but the funds being saved for the decommission are shrinking and costs are rising.

The federal government requires that all operational nuclear power stations set aside funds dedicated to the cost of dismantling reactors.

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The fund for decommissioning the Callaway plant held $268 million in 2007, but the amount had shrunk to $236.19 million by 2009, according to biennial reports filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by AmerenUE, the utility that oversees the Callaway plant. Over the same period of time, the estimated costs of decommissioning the plant increased from $586.52 million to $693.91 million.

Beth Hayden, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said estimates from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are limited to the costs of removing materials contaminated with radiation, and does not identify costs associated with removing structures that have not been contaminated by radiation. The NRC estimates the average cost for decontaminating a nuclear power plant is between $400 million and $570 million, Hayden said.

There are many factors that influence the cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant, and AmerenUE  has reported the total cost could be well below or above its latest estimate of $693.91 million. The utility puts the cost as low as $405.7 million if it uses third-party vendors, such as hospitals, to take nuclear waste from the plant. If the waste was buried in a repository the cost could be as high as $760.5 million.

At the Callaway plant, 82.5 percent of the total cost, or $572.47 million, would be used for the “physical decontamination and dismantling” of contaminated parts of the facility, according to AmerenUE’s most recent report to the NRC.

Demolition of designated structures and limited site restoration accounts for $86,738,375, or 12.5 percent, and the remaining $34,695,350, or 5.0 percent, would be allocated to management and transfer of spent fuel, the report reads.

The annual contributions to Callaway's decommissioning fund are $6.76 million, an amount that will be paid annually through 2023. In 2024, the last year of the plant’s 40-year operational license, the scheduled contribution would decline to $5.07  million, according to the report.

The contributions are held in a trust fund, with 65 percent of the amount invested in equities and 35 percent placed in bonds.

AmerenUE determined these annual additions “adequate to meet the cost of decommissioning the Callaway nuclear power plant,” according to an April 30 press release from the Missouri Public Service Commission.

The Callaway plant is a regulated utility, so it works with the state’s public utilities commission to collect money for the decommission fund. Regulated utilities assess the cost of decommissioning their facilities and then add a surcharge to the utility bill sent to all ratepayers, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said.

This surcharge is just one factor that goes into calculating utility bills, and would amount to “a tiny, tiny fraction of an individual bill” for Ameren-UE customers, Mike Cleary, spokesman for the utility, said.

AmerenUE's report to the NRC is similar to those provided by all other nuclear power stations in the U.S., and updated reports must be filed every two years while the plant is in operation. From these reports, the NRC determines if there would be enough money in each plant’s fund for a successful decommission. If the NRC believes there could be problems with the funds, the plant must revise its plan to account for, or at least eliminate, that discrepancy within the calendar year, Burnell said.

A June 19, 2009, report from the NRC identified 18 nuclear plants from around the country that must adjust their funding plans after submitting their reports to the NRC. Callaway Unit 1 is not listed in the report.

There are locations around the country where former nuclear plants stood, Burnell said. These include the Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Bath, Maine, the Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant in Charlevoix, Mich., and the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Rainier, Ore. At all three plants, spent nuclear fuel remains onsite in dry cask storage.

Since the Callaway plant continues to produce electricity, used fuel rods are stored within the facility in a stainless-steel-enclosed pool about the size of a tennis court, Cleary said. He added that because the plant does not produce much spent fuel, the pool is large enough to store all fuel used through 2020.

When the plant is decommissioned, these rods will be transferred to dry cask storage, Cleary said. This too, would be considered a temporary solution, he said.

“There would be a need for a permanent geological facility” in which large amounts of spent nuclear fuel could be stored, Cleary said. The proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository could have served as this facility, but it is no longer being considered byPresident Barack Obama's administration.

After a nuclear power plant is decommissioned, the location can be returned to one of two levels of cleanliness.

Unrestricted-use sites are fully protected against any residual radiation that could remain at the site, and could be used for housing or farms. Restricted-use sites, which have slightly higher levels of radiation, could not support full-time inhabitation but could still be used for facilities such as factories, Burnell said.

The plant was constructed on the site of the former town of Reform. Although AmerenUE does not have plans to use the site once nuclear power plant is disassembled, it will be safe for habitation.

“Our plan in Missouri would be to return the site to unrestricted use,” he said.

Callaway Unit 1 is Missouri's only nuclear power plant. It was first issued a 40-year operational license in 1984, Cleary said, meaning it can operate until Oct. 18, 2024. He added that in 2011 the utility intends to file for a 20-year extension so the plant could remain open through 2044.

Because a planned decommission is so far away, Cleary said the projected costs might not be accurate.

“They would be pure speculation at this point, because there would be newer technologies available in the future,” he said. “We’re making our best estimate on what we know today. We have a lot of years before the plant would be decommissioned so that would give us time to adjust our funds as we see fit.”


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