Denis Iurchak has taken a close look at nuclear decommissioning. Globally, 447 nuclear reactors are in operation as of January 2020. Of those, nearly 70% are older than 30 years (25% are older than 40 years). The IEA says around 200 commercial reactors are to be shut down in the next two decades. On top of that, 182 reactors are already in permanent shutdown. This means that between 200 and 400 reactors are likely to be decommissioned by 2040, explains Iurchak. In this article he summarises his paper that looks at the growing industry of decommissioning. Iurchak first runs through the numbers, and the regions – Europe, North America, North East Asia – where it’s taking place. The backdrop is those ageing fleets and the nuclear phase-out policies of countries around the world. He then explains that because only 21 reactors have been decommissioned worldwide (as of 2018) there is little historical data to help estimate costs. The range is $0.83m to $1.28m per MWe for smaller reactors (500-600 MWe), and from $0.21m to $0.59m per MWe for reactors around 1100 MWe. Iurchak ends by naming the consortiums and companies that are lining up to take hold of this business opportunity.
Decommissioning on the rise
The world nuclear fleet is getting older. Diagram 1 shows the distribution of the currently operational reactors by age. Of 447 reactors operating as of January 2020, 306 reactors, or nearly 70%, are 30 years old or older. 25% are older than 40 years. On average a reactor can be kept in operation for 60-80 years. This includes a 50-100% extension of the original service life.
After the reactor reaches its end-of-life it has to be decommissioned. According to the IEA, around 200 commercial reactors are to be shut down between 2020 and 2040. Apart from that, 182 reactors are already in permanent shutdown. This means that between 200 and 400 commercial and research reactors have to be decommissioned in the next 20 years.
The World Nuclear Association reports that by 2035 the volume of the nuclear decommissioning market will reach $111 billion . At least 200 reactors are to be decommissioned 30 years from now, and only 53 reactors are scheduled to be built within the same time.
The world fleet of nuclear reactors is unlikely to exceed 500 by 2050 . The expansion of nuclear energy will depend on efforts to fight climate change . While the future of nuclear power is uncertain, the decommissioning market is going to grow.
The world map of the market
The global demand for decommissioning services will be shaped by the decommissioning in Europe (excluding Russia, which is an isolated, state-monopolised market), North America (the US and Canada), and North-East Asia (Japan and South Korea).
Diagram 2 demonstrates that Central, Eastern, and Western European countries combined have 104 reactors in permanent shutdown, which is 61% of the world’s total number. 150 operational reactors in Europe are already older than 40 years .
Several European countries are pursuing the policy of nuclear phase-out. Germany, Belgium, and Spain aim to phase out nuclear power completely by mid-2020s-2030s. Switzerland voted for phase-out in a referendum in 2017 . The nuclear phase-out is being debated in Sweden .
The UK is going to close all its 15 reactors in the 2020s-2030s, replacing them with the new nuclear and renewable capacities . France has announced plans to close 14 of 58 reactors in operation by 2035 . Lithuania and Slovakia are decommissioning their old Soviet reactors to comply with the EU regulations . Bulgaria is going to do the same with 5 units at its Kozloduy NPP.
North America is an attractive future market for decommissioning. It has 25% of the world’s reactors in permanent shutdown, 37 units in the US and 6 in Canada (Diagram 2). There are 19 operational reactors in Canada. All of them are due to close by the late 2030s . Canada’s potential for decommissioning is considerable, but the US can offer even more.
Diagram 3 illustrates the distribution of the operational US reactors by age. 53 reactors or almost 54% of all operational reactors in the US are aged 40 years or more. All these reactors have received a 20-year license renewal from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) . These licences are going to expire by 2050s. Whether they will be prolonged is uncertain.
The distribution of the US reactors by age is bimodal, with modes at 35 and 46 years. This means that we are going to have two waves of reactor shutdowns with an interval of 10 years. The timing of these shutdowns will depend on the NRC’s decision to expand the service lives of the ageing reactors. This doesn’t take into account premature shutdowns due to malfunctions and bankruptcies. So far, 14 reactors have been closed prematurely in the US. Of these, 8 were closed for economic reasons. In most states in the US, nuclear power doesn’t receive zero-emission subsidies, so it can’t compete with low-cost hydrocarbons and subsidised renewables .
North-East Asia has 14% of the world’s reactors in permanent shutdown, 23 reactors in Japan and 2 in South Korea (Diagram 2). After the incident on Fukushima Daiichi, Japan and South Korea raised their safety requirements for NPPs and pledged to phase out nuclear power. As a result, 24 of 33 operational reactors in Japan are still in shutdown. 9 reactors have been restarted. 6 of them are due to close in the 2020s-2030s . South Korea didn’t shut down any of its NPPs, but its nuclear fleet is ageing. 6 of the operational 24 reactors are bound to be decommissioned in the mid-2020s .
The uncertain cost of decommissioning
As of 2018, 21 reactors have been decommissioned worldwide . The record of nuclear decommissioning is insufficient to infer a precise cost of decommissioning. In 2016 the OECD survey reported a range of actual and expected costs from $0.83 to $1.28 million per MWe for the US reactors 500-600 MWe, and from $0.21 to $0.59 million per MWe for reactors around 1100 MWe.
Diagram 4 shows a scatterplot with a line of best-fit of actual and projected decommissioning costs for 16 US reactors. The regression model based on these data shows that for every additional MWe of installed capacity the decommissioning costs will be lower by $906.81 per MWe. The more powerful the reactor is, the cheaper gets decommissioning per MWe.
Consortiums to lead decommissioning
Nuclear decommissioning is becoming a separate prominent branch of the nuclear industry. Several companies have already formed international consortiums specialised in decommissioning. The examples of such consortiums include the Comprehensive Decommissioning International (Holtec and SNC Lavalin) , Accelerated Decommissioning Partners (Orano and NorthStar) , Graphitech (EDF and Veolia) . The consortiums aim to benefit from the economies of scale, shared expertise, and combined resources. Other companies form divisions specialised in decommissioning  or acquire decommissioning contractors .
Some corporations have already plucked the ripe fruits of internationalisation and specialisation in decommissioning. In 2018, the US Westinghouse and Germany’s GNS Zerkon consortium received a contract for the decommissioning of 6 reactors in Germany . Last year a contract within the decommissioning of Kozloduy NPP in Bulgaria was given to the Empresarios Agrupados/Nuvia Consortium (Spain/UK) . Germany’s Createc  and Russia’s Tenex  were involved in R&D for the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi. GE Hitachi recently completed its contract on the decommissioning of the Oskarshamn Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden.
Denis Iurchak studies Economics at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
The article is based on his research paper on the world nuclear decommissioning market. The research was carried out during his time at the nuclear policy research NGO, the PIR Center.
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