History tells us that Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek mythology, gave man fire against the wishes of Zeus and, for that error in judgment, was made to suffer a very severe and lasting punishment. The accident involving the Soviet Union's Chernobyl power plant reminds us again that nuclear power is unforgiving of those who make mistakes, or who may misunderstand the significance of the many technological uncertainties that remain an important part of the nuclear energy puzzle.
In New England, the first generation of several of the region's nuclear power plants are reaching the autumn stage of their lives, yet the technology needed to shut them down is far from being well established and ready for use. Moreover, the costs to be borne regarding their "decommissioning" (defined here as the process by which a nuclear power plant is dismantled and cleaned up to prevent public exposure to radioactivity) continue to be matters of sharp debate and disagreement among proponents and opponents of nuclear power.What do we do when these power plants get too old to continue to be usable? What are the choices concerning their decommissioning? How should the costs of such dismantlement be borne and by whom?
These are reasonable questions to ask today, especially in view of the aging process surrounding an increasing number of these facilities. It is here that Chernobyl may provide us with a few important positive results, for if anything can honestly be gained from this unfortu nate event, it is the knowledge we obtain from the steps we must take to close down and entomb a nuclear power plant.
The decommissioning of nuclear power plants has been described as nuclear power's "missing link," due in large measure to the fact that there is no legislation on the statute books to deal with the issue of decommissioning, nor has any been contrived or suggested, even at this late date.
The overall problem of nuclear power plant dismantlement bears some resemblance to that of toxic waste disposal, and many will recall that little effective action was proposed or undertaken regarding that particular problem as well, until it had reached near-crisis proportions as a threat to public safety.
One of the most important unanswered questions confronting today's lawmaker regarding nuclear power plant decommissioning concerns the cost of such a program. At present, in the United States, operators of these plants alone must meet the costs of closing them down. Undernormal circumstances, sufficient money for this important part of the operation would, or should, be collected during the plant's operating lifetime. Some utilities have done so, but many haven't.
The problem of power plant decommissioning is worldwide, but should be viewed as especially serious in the United States because while elsewhere the government has always been seen as a backup source to help finance the process, such is not the case in the United States. U.S. utilities thus can't automatically look to the government for a bailout should the cost of decommissioning outrun any provisions the companies may have made for them.
A word or two about what is involved in decommissioning. First, it is not a simple process of shutting down the plant, disconnecting the wires, surrounding the facility with a fence and walking away. Much more preparation is involved and much more time is going to be required than that version of the term "dismantlement" would seem to imply.
The reactor may have to be blocked (encased in concrete) and left under some system of surveillance (conceivably, forever). In this case we are talking about entombment, and while not a popular choice among power plant operators (many see it as an impractical undertaking), entombment is being used by the Soviets regarding disposition of the Chernobyl power plant. There is much to learn, however, about such measures, many of which underscore the difficulty of achieving complete entombment. A recent assessment of the Chernobyl accident included notation that there might be less than enough concrete in the Ukraine to entomb the stricken reactor, raising doubt about whether adequate entombment is possible.
There are other options. One generally favored by the industry is that of dismantlement. They propose to leave the plant site eventually as they found it - as a green field minus any reminders of its most recent use.
Dismantlement is not, however, uncomplicated. The reactor must be shut down. The control systems must be disconnected. the fuel must be removed. Most important, and most costly - what is left must be kept under surveillance for many years. Some experts say this overall series of steps could take as long as 100 years. Others suggest that the time lapse between shutdown of the plant to release of the plant site to other uses could be as little as 8 to 15 years. What is clear is the obvious lack of certainty about how long it will take, and how much and what kinds of technological effort will be involved in such a complicated undertaking, and of course, how much will it be apt to cost and - most important - who will bear those costs.
In this latter regard, if utilities cannot automatically look to the government to "bail them out," what then are their alternatives? What are they to do should the cost of decommissioning outrun those provisions they may have made to cover them at the beginning?
One thing becomes immediately clear. They could be faced with the necessity of borrowing capital to be used almost entirely for unproductive purposes, and that is not an easy choice for company officials to back when they take it to the board room for decision. Furthermore, it is made all the more difficult when it is realized that no one really knows what the impact of decommissioning will be upon future reactor ordering, once the issue is raised as a topic of debate.
There is an old French philosophical saying that "on ne saurait faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs." You cannot make an omelet without breaking the eggs. One of the first steps we might consider taking would be to accelerate efforts to clear up the issue of decommissioning costs. Similarly, whatever initiatives the United States can take to expand opportunities for international cooperative efforts to the same end should not be overlooked. What must be done requires very little risk on our part.
Perhaps we ought not to lose sight of the fact that Prometheus is the Greek word for "forethought." But at the same time, it might be a good idea to remember that Zeus was reputed to have sent down Pandora and her box in order to counterbalance the "gift" of fire Prometheus made to mankind.