PLYMOUTH, Mass. (AP) – Companies specializing in the management of radioactive materials buy retired US nuclear reactors from tools and promise to clean them up and tear them at dramatically less time than usual – eight years instead of 60 years in some cases.
Converting nuclear factories to remote businesses and uninstalling them on such a fast track represents a brand new approach in the United States, never before implemented in that country, and involving new technologies as well.
Supporters say the accelerated method can get rid of a danger faster and return the country to productive use earlier. But regulators, activists and other issues about the fast timetables are safe and whether the companies have the expertise and financial means to do the job.
"We were in the arms as it was 60," Janet Tauro, head of the New Jersey Clean Water Action Environmental Group, said about the first plans for the closure of the Oyster Creek facility. "And then we hear that it will be accelerated to eight years. It's great to get it over, but are there corners to be cut?"
When a reactor is shut down, the radioactive mess must be cleaned up, used nuclear fuel packed for long-term storage and the plant itself dismantled. The most common approach can last for decades, with the plant placed for a long period of hibernation, while radioactive elements slowly decay.
Tensioned fuel rods that can no longer maintain a nuclear reaction remain radioactive and still produce significant heat. They are usually located in water sources to cool, stay there for at least five years, with 10 years of industry standard, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After that, they are removed and placed in giant cylindrical barrels, usually made of steel and encapsulated in concrete.
But Holtec International, which in the past year has bought up several retired or soon to be retired nuclear power plants in the United States, has made a box that says it can accept used fuel after only two years of cooling.
Holtec, a company with more than 30 years of experience in the management of radioactive waste, signed an agreement last year to buy Oyster Creek in the Forked River, New Jersey, from its owner, Exelon Generation.
It also has deals in place to purchase more plants owned by Entergy Corp., including: Pilgrim, in historic Plymouth, Massachusetts, closing May 31; Palisades, in Covert, Michigan, was closed in 2022; and two reactors are expected to close within two years at Indian Point in Buchanan, New York.
"Our commitment to the core business includes taking ownership of nuclear power plant closures so that we can safely and efficiently dismantle the plants so that the land can be returned to productive use," Holtec spokeswoman Joy Russell said in an email.  The proposed sale is waiting for NRC approval, with decisions expected in the coming weeks and months.
Similarly, in January, NorthStar Group Services, a specialist completed the acquisition of Vermont Yankee from Entergy with plans for its Accelerated closure.
The full financial details of the ongoing agreements are not disclosed, but if the agreements are approved, Holtec will inherit the multibillion dollar settlement funds created by the plant's potential retirement tools.
each fund after the plant is cleared up, Holtec and Northstar are also betting on the prospect of raising money from the federal government ring for storing spent fuel during and after closure, because there is no national nuclear waste disposal site.
Companies that jump into the business think they can make a profit. For the tools, such deals provide them with the freedom to monitor long, complex projects involving decades of work and around the clock of hazardous waste.
Although there is a risk of spent fuel transfer too fast, experts also notice there are hazards while the fuel rods are in the pools, including the chances of a catastrophic fire or a leak due to a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other incident.
"There is a natural tendency to say," Oh, they are doing it fast, they are going to make mistakes, it is not going to be safe, says Rod McCullum, senior director of closure and used fuel at the Nuclear Energy Institute , a Washington-based nuclear law group. "You actually get safer by getting faster."
However, in state letters filed with the NRC, Massachusetts state officials have expressed skepticism about Holtec's plan to release Pilgrim on an accelerated plan "never before." Holtec has never realized that a closure is beginning to complete.
Holtec has been investigated over its role in an accident in August during the somewhat less aggressive closure of the San Onofre plant in Southern California, where two reactors were retired in 2013 and estimated end date is 2030.
Holtec Contractors lowered a 45-ton spent fuel can into an underground storage vault on San Onofre when it was misaligned and nearly emptied 18 meters, the investigators said. No radiation was released.
Federal regulators fined Southern California Edison, the plant owner, $ 116,000, and a survey found that some Holtec procedures were inadequate or not followed.
Massachusetts officials have briefly stopped asking the NRC to block Pilgrim's sale but have quoted in the California incident asking whether the money in the Pilgrim Settlement Fund is sufficient to cover unexpected delays or abuses.
By Holtec's accounts, the pilgrim's closure will cost an estimated $ 1.13 billion, leaving $ 3.6 million in funds. State officials have described that pad as "skinny" and have warned of "significant health, environmental, economic and economic hazards."
Holtec said its equipment has never been involved in a major accident and is facing cost calculations.
Pilgrim, situated along scenic, environmentally sensitive Cape Cod Bay and retired after 47 years, has a history of uncontrolled closures and was recently removed from an NRC list of the country's least secure reactors.
The Citizen Group Pilgrim Watch, who has long been pushing for the closure of the plant, is leery of what lies ahead during the closure.
"The story is not over. It's a sequel," says Mary Lampert, the organization's director. "And sometimes the sequel, as in the movies, is worse than the main show."