On 1 October 2021, the RIAS held a policy workshop titled “Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning: Lessons and Challenges in Transatlantic Perspective.” The main object of discussion was the (safe) dismantlement of civilian nuclear reactors, a topic of global relevance and a matter of local concern in Zeeland, which is home to the last active nuclear power plant in the country. The Borssele nuclear power plant, located downstream the Western Scheldt and managed by EPZ, represents the most important energy provider in the region. Its decommissioning is currently scheduled for 1 January 2034.
As all the panelists recognized, decommissioning is a challenging and complex procedure and does not necessarily spell the end of a nuclear plant’s life cycle. It involves the safe disposal of nuclear waste and the decontamination of equipment and facilities. In this regard, the United States is the country with the greatest deal of experience. Since 2013, some thirty nuclear facilities have been decommissioned or have been put in the process of being shut down in the US, and an additional eight reactors are supposed to be decommissioned by 2025.
The workshop was opened by a keynote address by Melissa Haller, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Melissa is an economic geographer interested in innovation, employment, and economic resilience in US cities, with a particular interest in the impacts of plant closures and economic shocks on regional development. Her research focuses on the impacts of nuclear decommissioning on US nuclear host communities and on the effects of decommissioning from multiple perspectives. Melissa’s talk gave a short overview of nuclear decommissioning history and processes in the US, and she highlighted the socio-ecological costs and consequences that local communities oftentimes bear as a result of nuclear plants’ final shutdown.
After a lively Q&A session, the first panelist, Tom Keij presented the case of the nuclear plant in Borssele. Tom is Fuel Cycle Manager for EPZ, the owner-operator of the last active nuclear power plant in The Netherlands. As Fuel Cycle Manager, Tom is responsible for both the front-end and back-end business regarding the nuclear fuel and for updating the plant’s decommissioning and dismantling plan. Tom enlightened on the challenges and costs, but also on the opportunities that the closure of the plant entails. Then, Brenda L. Hawks took the floor and gave an insightful presentation on the US regulatory approach to nuclear decommissioning. Brenda is the Acting Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations Oversight and Chief of Nuclear Safety at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States. With over 30 years of nuclear and quality experience including qualifications as a Chief Refueling Engineer for nuclear submarines at Charleston Naval Shipyard, Facility Representative at Y-12 Enriched Uranium Operations, and other senior management positions in nuclear safety, operations, and quality assurance, Brenda was able to enlighten on the difficulties related, mostly, to the safe disposal of non-nuclear materials that characterize any decommissioning process. Marieke Schopman-van Gemert concluded the first panel by presenting her work within the Dutch nuclear industry and highlighting the role that NRG plays in granting the safe planning and execution of the decommission of nuclear facilities, both in and outside the Netherlands.
The second panel revolved around the involvement of civil society in the process of monitoring nuclear plants’ decommissioning. The first speaker was Jan Haverkamp, a senior nuclear energy and energy policy expert with the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) and Greenpeace Netherlands, and co-founder and vice-chair of Nuclear Transparency Watch. Jan underscored both the social and economic setbacks of nuclear power production, and emphasized how difficult and ineffective, from a financial and environmental view, the clean-up of a former nuclear site may be. Finally, Dirk Bannink, a founding member of the Laka Foundation, a Dutch documentation and research center on nuclear energy, gave a historical overview of people’s engagement with and protests against nuclear power in the Netherlands and conjoined such a narrative with the broader, negative impact that keeping the public at bay during the process of nuclear decommissioning generally has.