Zion nuclear plant being shut down

April 4, 2011 7:26:13 PM PDT
The nuclear power plant in far north suburban Zion is being shut down and eliminated.

In 10 years there won't be anything left but the spent nuclear fuel, which will be entombed in steel and concrete and stored on site, under armed guard for who knows how long.

A company named Energy Solutions now holds title to the plant and its nuclear license. Last fall it started the decade-long process of decommissioning a plant that stopped producing nuclear power 13 years ago.

Right now, there is only one man in the old control room of the Zion nuclear plant and he doesn't actually need to be there. The former control room will go dark in about a year and a half, about the same time, the spent nuclear fuel will be moved from its cooling pool to more permanent on site storage.

There are over 2,200 nuclear fuel assemblies submerged at the plant. They range in age from 14 years to 40. Each will be transfered, while underwater, to three-inch thick stainless steel tubes. Then they will be vacuum dried, welded shut and placed in even larger concrete containers.

"There's no chance of a meltdown. The water temperature is below 100 degrees. These units have been cooling for 13 years," said Val Christensen, Energy Solutions CEO.

Until and unless the government chooses a more permanent destination, Zion's spent fuel will be stored in giant concrete casks, placed atop a super-strength concrete pad a short distance from where the plant stands today. The pad is engineers to withstand earthquake, flood, tornado, and man-made assault.

"There is nothing to leak out. There's no liquids. There's no gases. There's no radioactive gases that could out into the atmosphere. It's just steel, ceramic, metal and concrete," said Pat Daley, Zion Solutions plant manager.

Still, the encased spent fuel would be resting roughly 1,200 yards from Lake Michigan. Senator Mark Kirk has long argued that that's a bad idea whatever the safeguards though others believe that it's not unsafe.

"The risks of storing it next to Lake Michigan are manageable and reasonable and they're being managed by the regulator," said Dr Mark Peters, Argonne National Lab.

It will take four years to move the spent fuel to its dry storage at Zion after which the plant will come down

Energy Solutions will sell a good bit of it for scrap, and when done in seven to 10 years, the lakefront land is to be returned to its original state. And that won't come cheap.

"All in all, it'll be about a billion dollars over the life of the project, and part of our cost model is turning over a refund to the rate payer if we can come in on budget," said Christensen.

Most of that billion dollar decommissioning cost came from ComEd ratepayers. Until the end of 2006, ComEd customers paid a tenth of a penny for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they used, and that money went into a trust to pay for decommissioning.

Nuclear plants have been taken down before in the U.S., but this is the first time that a big, dual reactor nuclear plant has been decommissioned.