Decommissioning fund for Clinton back on track

Decommissioning fund for Clinton back on track

CHAMPAIGN – Exelon Corp. says it has caught up on its obligations for replenishing the trust fund for decommissioning the Clinton nuclear plant – but it still hasn't put enough aside for retiring the Byron and Braidwood plants.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday notified the operators of 26 nuclear generating units across the U.S. that, as of the end of 2008, they weren't setting aside enough money to cover the units' dismantling costs.

The projected shortfalls ranged from $12 million to $204 million, said Prema Chandrathil, public affairs officer for the NRC's Region III office in Lisle. The shortfalls weren't available for specific plants, she said.

However, in a March 31 letter to the NRC, Exelon said it estimated $399.6 million in radiological decommissioning funds were needed for Clinton, and $281.5 million had been accumulated by Dec. 31, 2008.

This week, the NRC ordered the nuclear plant operators to submit plans for meeting minimum funding requirements, Chandrathil said.

Companies have 10 working days to comply, and the NRC will hold conference calls to discuss the plans case-by-case, she added.

Exelon Corp. spokesman Marshall Murphy said Friday that although the company fell short of the funding requirements at year's end, it was on target for Clinton at the end of May.

The company's license to operate Clinton expires in 2026, and Exelon could choose to begin decommissioning the plant at that time, Murphy said. But it could also choose to seek a license extension for as long as 20 years, he added.

Murphy said that at the end of 2008, Exelon was $184 million behind in the money put aside for decommissioning the 17 nuclear units it operates in the Midwest and East. In Illinois, that included the Clinton, LaSalle, Byron and Braidwood plants.

On May 31, Exelon remained behind in the amounts needed to decommission the two units at Byron and the two units at Braidwood, Murphy said. But the company was able to catch up on Clinton because of "the improved performance of investment funds," he said.

"We did not have to reallocate funds from elsewhere in the corporation," he added.

Murphy said Exelon "strongly" believes that at the end of May, it had enough money set aside to meet minimum requirements for decommissioning 13 of its 17 units, including the unit at Clinton.

He said the company is "committed" to funding the amount needed for decommissioning all the units.

"We do not have any plans for the construction of another unit at Clinton," he added.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that over the past two years, estimates of dismantling costs for the entire U.S. nuclear industry have soared by more than $4.6 billion because of rising energy and labor costs, while the funds that are supposed to pay for shutting plants down have lost $4.4 billion in the battered stock market.

Normally, only four to five plants would be short on decommissioning funds, NRC senior congressional affairs officer Eugene Dacus wrote in a memo. But "the NRC believes that the economy may account for the unusually high number this year."

NRC officials had said last week that about 30 reactors would receive letters this week saying their decommissioning funds were running short. That was based on the agency's review of status reports on the funds filed every other year by plant owners.

NRC officials also said another 19 plants would have to be mothballed for up to 60 years after they shut down, partly in hopes that their decommissioning funds would see enough investment growth to pay for dismantling the reactors and removing radioactive components.

Such long periods of idleness have raised concerns that plant systems could decay over time, raising the chances of an accident that might release radioactivity to the environment. Various reports by government agencies and independent groups also have raised alarm that the plants could be tempting targets for terrorists bent on creating radioactive "dirty bombs."

NRC officials say the plants will be guarded and monitored and that the risks will be small.

Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive and decommissioning expert who recently has been consulting with groups critical of the industry, said Thursday that the NRC's data still do not present a complete picture of the likely costs of cleaning up nuclear sites.

Gundersen said the level of decommissioning required by the NRC, in which radioactivity is lowered but some structures are allowed to remain in place, does not achieve the full-site restoration some states call for.

"If you want your site back to the condition it was (before plants were built), the NRC numbers are not going to get you there," he said. "You're going to have to put in hundreds of millions more."

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