Last year, after the tsunami and reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, many European nations decided to phase out their existing fleets of nuclear power plants. Germany and Belgium are aiming to end all atomic generation by 2030. Switzerland is shooting for 2035.
Yet the mere act of shutting down those reactors is going to pose a huge challenge in the years ahead. According to a new report from GlobalData, Europe is on track to decommission nearly 150 nuclear power plants in the next two decades. Some, like those in Germany, are being mothballed for political reasons. Others, in France and Britain, are simply getting old. Yet dismantling a nuclear reactor is an arduous, time-consuming task — typically costing between $400 million and $1 billion per plant. And it’s not clear that Europe is fully prepared for the onslaught of retirements.
In a recent issue of New Scientist, Fred Pearce offered a handy step-by-step guide on how to take apart a nuclear reactor. There are thousands of tons of radioactive material to deal with — not just the spent fuel rods, but also various materials that have picked up lower levels of radioactivity. That includes, potentially, the reactor vessel, the fuel-rod casings, various bits of scrap metal and even old clothing. That waste can’t just be carted off to regular landfills; it needs to be disposed of properly.