On a quiet stretch of the Connecticut River, about two-thirds of the way downstream from Hartford towards the river’s mouth, there is a pleasant field where deer graze and kestrel wheel overhead. Migrating black ducks, green-winged teal and mallards feed at the adjacent Salmon River. Conservationists covet the site, and others would like to see some new development there.
But for the time being, it’s all sealed off from the public, fenced, surveilled by security cameras and patrolled by armed guards.
A nuclear power plant, Connecticut Yankee, operated here from 1968 to 1996. It has been decommissioned and the former plant site, according to federal and state environmental authorities, has been fully remediated and ready for any use including farming.
Connecticut Yankee is one of 10 reactor sites that, after generation of nuclear carbon-free energy ended, has been dismantled and cleaned so that the man-made radiation is virtually gone.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that decommissioning be completed within 60 years of closure. The nuclear industry follows through when a plant is shut down; the steel and concrete are cleared away until the site is clean enough for raising food. Nuclear plants must plan for this before they begin sending power to the grid, setting aside money for the job as they operate.
At Connecticut Yankee, workers safely shipped out 220 million pounds of low-level radioactive waste, and 400 million pounds of nonradioactive debris. Yankee won an award from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for the thoroughness of its work.
The nuclear industry has used the experience of Connecticut Yankee and other decommissioning projects to improve the process. Innovations like sophisticated project management software and modeling tools, robotics and other technologies which improve safety and efficiency of dismantling reactors, and innovations in dry fuel storage can cut the time to decommission nuclear plants by years.
Future decommissioning could be smoother and faster if the NRC follows through on a plan to establish a decommissioning rule, governing details like how plant systems can be shut down and how security and emergency planning activities can be reduced as fuel is removed from the reactor. Because there is no standard procedure in place, currently plant owners must apply to the commission for an exemption for each change they want to make, to match actual physical conditions.
The decommissioning here in Connecticut is not complete, though, because there are 43 steel-reinforced concrete casks holding all the fuel the plant used over the years of its operation, and some radioactive reactor parts. The casks can withstand extreme weather and they’re safe enough to walk up to and touch, but the material isn’t supposed to still be here. The U.S. Department of Energy was required by law to begin removing and permanently disposing of the fuel in 1998, but until Congress acts and the federal government fulfills its obligation to remove the fuel, it will remain in Connecticut.
Yankee, a pioneer, has done its part. The NRC needs to make it easier for others to follow by establishing a rule with a regular procedure for decommissioning. And Congress must allow plant owners to finish the job, by moving ahead with accepting the material for storage and disposal.