As of 2015, about 110 mines and 250 research reactors have been retired from operation. Some of these operations have been dismantled to the extent that protection from radiation is no longer necessary.
The process of dismantling is called decommissioning, which involves the decontamination of the facility to minimize residual radioactivity. It involves removal of radioactive materials to their designated disposal units and reusing the property for other applications.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) developed guidelines to be followed by all companies to ensure that the process is safe and environmentally sound.
How Do Agencies Prepare for the Decommissioning Process?
Decommissioning, including that of uranium mines, is a mandatory multi-million operation. The NRC requires all agencies operating the plants to set aside funds throughout the plant’s lifetime of service.
Agencies work with state and federal authorities to guarantee that enough commissioning funds will be available at the time of need. The company does not have direct control over the money, nor can they use it for any other purpose.
Until they have completed the decommissioning process and terminated their operating license, the agency remains accountable to the NRC.
What is Involved in the Decommissioning Process?
For the closure of a nuclear power plant, a company needs to reduce the residual radioactivity until it reaches safe levels. Once it is fully decontaminated, the NRC is able to release the property for other uses and permanently terminate the facility’s license. After it has stopped all operations, the company needs to complete decommissioning within 60 years.
The process involves removal of the used nuclear fuel from the reactor, dismantling systems and components containing radioactive elements and disposing contaminated materials. They can be disposed of on-site, or removed to a disposal facility.
There are two decommissioning options: Safe Storage (SAFSTOR) and Decontamination (DECON). Safe Storage uses time as a decontaminating agent, leaving the radioactive products to decay while the plant is kept intact.
On the other hand, Decontamination involves the removal of contaminated materials, which not only reduces the radiation in the facility, but also minimizes the exposure of workers during subsequent stages of decommissioning.
Companies can start with SAFSTOR, then proceed to DECON anytime within the 60-year period, as long as they allot at least 10 years for DECON decommissioning.
As of 2014, more than 70 test and power reactors have closed since 1960, including 17 power reactor sites currently in the process of decommissioning. This demonstrates the strength and flexibility of the NRC’s approach and regulation of the process.