Nuclear decommissioning


Example of decommissioning work underway.
The reactor pressure vessel being transported away from the site for burial.

Nuclear decommissioning is the process whereby a nuclear facility is dismantled to the point that it no longer requires measures for radiation protection.[1] The presence of radioactive material necessitates processes that are potentially occupationally hazardous, expensive, time-intensive, and present environmental risks that must be addressed to ensure radioactive materials are either transported elsewhere for storage or stored on-site in a safe manner.[2] The challenge in nuclear decommissioning is not just technical, but also economical[3] and social.[4]

Decommissioning is an administrative and technical process. It includes clean-up of radioactive materials and progressive demolition of the facility. Once a facility is fully decommissioned, no radiological danger should persist. The costs of decommissioning are generally spread over the lifetime of a facility and saved in a decommissioning fund.[5] After a facility has been completely decommissioned, it is released from regulatory control and the plant licensee is no longer responsible for its nuclear safety. Decommissioning may proceed all the way to "greenfield" status.


Nuclear decommissioning is the administrative and technical process whereby a nuclear facility such as a nuclear power plant (NPP), a research reactor, an isotope production plant, a particle accelerator, or uranium mine is dismantled to the point that it no longer requires measures for radiation protection. The progressive demolition of buildings and removal of radioactive material is potentially occupationally hazardous, expensive, time-intensive, and presents environmental risks that must be addressed to ensure radioactive materials are either transported elsewhere for storage or stored on-site in a safe manner.[2][better source needed] Decommissioning may proceed all the way to "greenfield status". Once a facility is decommissioned no radioactive danger persists and it can be released from regulatory control.[6]


The International Atomic Energy Agency defines three options for decommissioning:

  • Immediate Dismantling (Early Site Release/Decon in the United States) allows for the facility to be removed from regulatory control relatively soon after shutdown. Final dismantling or decontamination activities begin within a few months or years, and depending on the facility, it could take five years or more.[7] After being removed from regulatory control, the site becomes available for unrestricted use.[8]
  • Safe Enclosure (or Safestor(e) Safstor) postpones the final decommissioning for a longer period, usually 40 to 60 years. The nuclear facility is placed into a safe storage configuration during this time.[9]
  • Entombment/Entomb involves placing the facility in a condition that allows the remaining radioactive material to remain on-site indefinitely. The size of the area where the radioactive material is located is generally minimized and the facility is encased in a long-lived material such as concrete, with the aim of preventing a release of radioactive material.[10]

Legal aspects

The decommission of a nuclear reactor can only take place after the appropriate licence has been granted pursuant to the relevant legislation. As part of the licensing procedure, various documents, reports and expert opinions have to be written and delivered to the competent authority, e.g. safety report, technical documents and an environmental impact study (EIS).

In the European Union these documents are the basis for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) according to Council Directive 85/337/EEC. A precondition for granting such a licence is an opinion by the European Commission according to Article 37 of the Euratom Treaty. Article 37 obliges every Member State of the European Union to communicate certain data relating to the release of radioactive substances to the Commission. This information must reveal whether and if so what radiological impacts decommissioning – planned disposal and accidental release – will have on the environment, i.e. water, soil or airspace, of the EU member states.[11] On the basis of these general data, the Commission must be in a position to assess the exposure of reference groups of the population in the nearest neighbouring states.


In the United States, the NRC recommends that the costs of decommissioning should be spread over the lifetime of a facility and saved in a decommissioning fund.[12] Repository delay seems to be effective in reducing NPP decommissioning costs.[13]

In France, decommissioning of Brennilis Nuclear Power Plant, a fairly small 70 MW power plant, already cost €480 million (20x the estimate costs) and is still pending after 20 years. Despite the huge investments in securing the dismantlement, radioactive elements such as plutonium, caesium-137 and cobalt-60 leaked out into the surrounding lake.[14][15]

In the UK, decommissioning of the Windscale Advanced gas cooled reactor (WAGR), a 32 MW prototype power plant, cost €117 million.[citation needed] A 2013 estimate by the United Kingdom's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority predicted costs of at least £100 billion to decommission the 19 existing United Kingdom nuclear sites.[16]

In Germany, decommissioning of Niederaichbach nuclear power plant, a 100 MW power plant, amounted to more than €143 million.[citation needed]

New methods for decommissioning have been developed in order to minimize the usual high decommissioning costs. One of these methods is in situ decommissioning (ISD), meaning that the reactor is entombed instead of dismantled. This method was implemented at the U.S. Department of Energy Savannah River Site in South Carolina for the closures of the P and R Reactors. With this tactic, the cost of decommissioning both reactors was $73 million. In comparison, the decommissioning of each reactor using traditional methods would have been an estimated $250 million. This results in a 71% decrease in cost by using ISD.[17]

In 2004, in a meeting in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated the total cost for the decommissioning of all nuclear facilities. Decommissioning of all nuclear power reactors in the world would require US$187 billion; US$71 billion for fuel cycle facilities; less than US$7 billion for all research reactors; and US$640 billion for dismantling all military reactors for the production of weapons-grade plutonium, research fuel facilities, nuclear reprocessing chemical separation facilities, etc. The total cost to decommission the nuclear fission industry in the World (from 2001 to 2050) was estimated at around US$1 trillion.[18]

Decommissioning funds

In Europe there is considerable concern over the funds necessary to finance final decommissioning. In many countries either the funds do not appear sufficient to cover decommissioning and in other countries decommissioning funds are used for other activities, putting decommissioning at risk, and distorting competition with parties who do not have such funds available.[19]

In 2016 the European Commission assessed that European Union's nuclear decommissioning liabilities were seriously underfunded by about 118 billion euros, with only 150 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 268 billion euros of expected decommissioning costs covering both dismantling of nuclear plants and storage of radioactive parts and waste. France had the largest shortfall with only 23 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 74 billion euros of expected costs.[20]

Similar concerns exist in the United States, where the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has located apparent decommissioning funding assurance shortfalls and requested 18 power plants to address that issue.[21] The decommissioning cost of Small modular reactors is expected to be twice as much respect to Large Reactors.[22]

International collaboration

Organizations that promote the international sharing of information, knowledge, and experiences related to nuclear decommissioning include the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency and the European Atomic Energy Community.[23] In addition, an online system called the Deactivation and Decommissioning Knowledge Management Information Tool was developed under the United States Department of Energy and made available to the international community to support the exchange of ideas and information. The goals of international collaboration in nuclear decommissioning are to reduce decommissioning costs and improve worker safety.[23]

List of inactive or decommissioned civil nuclear reactors

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, viewed from the west. All eight reactors are visible; two units have been shut down.

A wide range of nuclear facilities have been decommissioned so far. The number of decommissioned nuclear reactors out of the List of nuclear reactors is small. As of 2016, 150 nuclear reactors were shut-off, in several early and intermediate stages (cold shut-down, defueling, SAFSTOR, internal demolition), but only 17 have been taken to fully "greenfield status".[24] Some of these sites still host spent nuclear fuel in the form of dry casks embedded in concrete filled steel drums.[25][26]

Several nuclear engineering and building demolition companies specialize in nuclear decommissioning, which has become a profitable business. More recently, construction and demolition companies in the UK have also begun to develop nuclear decommissioning services. Due to the radioactivity in the reactor structure (specially with high neutron-flux), decommissioning takes place in stages.[27] Plans for decommissioning reactors have a time frame of decades.[28] The long time frame makes reliable cost estimates difficult and cost overruns are common even for "quick" projects.[citation needed]

As of 2017, most nuclear plants operating in the United States were designed for a life of about 30–40 years[29] and are licensed to operate for 40 years by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.[30][31] As of 2020, the average age of these reactors was about 39 years.[31] Many plants are coming to the end of their licensing period and if their licenses are not renewed, they must go through a decontamination and decommissioning process.[29][32][24]

  decommissioning complete
  decommissioning in progress
  suffered partial or complete core meltdown
Dismantled or inactive civil nuclear reactors[23][33][34]
Country Location Reactor type Operative life Decommissioning
Austria[35] Zwentendorf BWR 723 MWe Never activated due to referendum in 1978[36] Now a technics museum
Belgium SCK•CEN – BR3,
located at Mol, Belgium
PWR (BR-3) 25 years
Decon completed (2011)[37][38]
European pilot project
(underwater cutting and remote operated tools) [39][40]
Bulgaria Kozloduy
Units 1, 2, 3, 4[41]
(4 x 408 MWe)
Reactors 1,2 closed in 2003,
reactors 3,4 closed in 2006
(Closing forced
by European Union)
Canada Gentilly
Unit 1
250 MWe
180 days
(between 1966 and 1973)
"Static state" since 1986[42][43][44] stage two:[clarification needed]
$25 million
Canada Pickering NGS
Units A2, A3
8 x 542 MWe
30 years
(from 1974 to 2004)
Two units currently in "cold standby"
Decommissioning to begin in 2020[45][46]
calculated:[clarification needed]
$270–430/kWe[citation needed]
China[47] Beijing (CIAE) HWWR 10 MWe (multipurpose Heavy Water Experimental Reactor for the production of plutonium and tritium) 49 years
SAFSTOR until 2027 proposed: $6 million for dismantling
$5 million for fuel remotion
France[48] Brennilis HWGCR 70 MWe 12 years
Phase 3
(fire during decommissioning in 2015) [49]
already spent €480 million
(20 times the forecasted amount) [50][51]
France Bugey
Unit 1
Gas cooled, graphite moderator
1972–1994 postponed
France Chinon
Units 1, 2, 3
France Chooz-A PWR 300 MW 24 years
Fully decommissioned – Greenfield[52][53][54]
(Nuclear reactor was located inside a mountain cave)
France Saint-Laurent Gas-graphite 1969–1992 Postponed
France Rapsodie at
Fast breeder nuclear reactor
40 MWe
15 years
1983: Defuelling
1987: Remotion of neutron reflectors
1985–1989: Decontamination
of sodium coolant
Accident when cleaning residual sodium in vessel with ethyl carbitol (March 31° 1994)
The removed activity is estimated to around 4800 TBq.
600 TBq (60Co) in 1990 still contained in 1ry vessel

The dose burden from 1987 to 1994 was 224 mSv.
RAPSODIE reached IAEA level 2 of decomm in 2005

STAGE 3 is planned in 2020[55]

France Phénix at
Fast breeder nuclear reactor
233 MWe
36 years
1) Defuelled estimated for the future:
$4000/kWe[citation needed]
France Superphénix at
Fast breeder nuclear reactor
11 years
1) Defuelled
2) Extraction of Sodium[58]
Pipe cutting with a robot [59][60]
estimated for the future:
$4000/kWe[citation needed]
East Germany Greifswald
Units 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
5 x 408 MWe
Reactors 1–5 closed in 1989/1990,
reactor 6: finished but never operated
(underwater cutting)
~ $330/kWe
East Germany Rheinsberg
Unit 1
70–80 MWe
24 years
In dismantling
since 1996
Safstor (underwater cutting)
~ $330/kWe
East Germany Stendal
Units 1, 2, 3, 4
(4 x 1000 MWe)
Never activated
(1st reactor 85% completed)
Not radioactive
(Cooling towers
demolished with explosives)

(Structure in exhibition
inside an
industrial park)
West Germany Gundremmingen-A BWR
250 MWe

11 years
pilot project
(underwater cutting)
(~ $300–550/kWe)
India[61] Rajasthan Atomic Power Station
Unit 1
PHWR 100 MWe (similar to CANDU) 44 years
Iraq Osiraq/Tammuz
Unit 1[62]
BWR 40 MWe
Nuclear reactor with weapons-grade plutonium production capability
(Destroyed by Israeli Air Force in 1981) Not radioactive: never supplied with uranium
Italy[63] Caorso BWR
840 MWe[64][65]
3 years[citation needed]
(1978 – Closed in 1987 after referendum in 1986)
SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
€450 million (dismantling)
+ €300 million (fuel reprocessing)[66][67][68][69]
Italy Garigliano (Caserta) BWR
150 MWe[70]
Closed on March 1, 1982 SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
Italy Latina (Foce Verde) Magnox
210 MWe Gas-graphite[71]
24 years
(1962 – Closed in 1986 after referendum)
SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
Italy Trino Vercellese PWR Westinghouse,
270 MWe[72]

(Closed in 1986 after referendum)
SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
Japan Fukushima Dai-ichi
Unit 1
BWR 439 MWe November 17, 1970 – March 11, 2011 Since 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11

Hydrogen explosion (INES 7)[76][77]

Estimated at ¥10 trillion (US$100 billion) for decontaminating Fukushima and dismantling all reactors in Japan and considering long time damage to environment and economy, including agriculture, cattle breeding, fishery, water potabilization, tourism, loss of reputation in the world
(without considering further health care spending and reduction of life expectancy).[78]
Japan Fukushima Dai-ichi
Unit 2
BWR 760 MWe December 24, 1973 – March 11, 2011
Japan Fukushima Dai-ichi
Unit 3
BWR 760 MWe October 26, 1974 – March 11, 2011
Japan Fukushima Dai-ichi
Unit 4
BWR 760 MWe February 24, 1978 – March 11, 2011 Since March 11, 2011
Reactor defueled when tsunami hit
Damage to spent fuel cooling-pool
(INES 4)
Japan Fukushima Dai-ichi
Unit 5
BWR 760 MWe September 22, 1977 – March 11, 2011 Planned decommissioning
Cold shutdown since March 11, 2011
Japan Fukushima Dai-ichi
Unit 6
BWR 1067 MWe May 4, 1979 – March 11, 2011 Planned decommissioning
Cold shutdown since March 11, 2011
Japan Fukushima Daini
Unit 1[79]
BWR 1067 MWe July 31, 1981 – 11 March 2011 Planned decommissioning
Cold shutdown since March 11, 2011
Japan Fugen[81] Advanced thermal reactor
(MOX fuel core,
heavy water-BWR)
165 MWe
1979–2003 Cold shutdown [82]


Japan Tokai
Unit 1
Magnox (GCR) 160 MWe 1966–1998 SAFSTOR: 10 years[85][86]
then decon
until 2018

¥93 billion[87]
(€660 million of 2003)
North Korea Yongbyon Magnox-type
(reactor for the production of nuclear weapons through PUREX treatment)
20 years
Deactivated after a treaty[88]
SAFSTOR: cooling tower dismantled
Netherlands Dodewaard BWR Westinghouse
58 MWe[89]
28 years
Defuelling completed
SAFSTOR: 40 years
Russia Mayak[90]
PUREX plant for
uranium enrichment
Several severe incidents
Russia Seversk[91]
Three plutonium reactors
Plant for uranium enrichment
Two fast-breeder reactors closed (of three),
after disarmaments agreements with USA in 2003.[92]
Slovakia Jaslovské Bohunice
Units 1, 2[93][94]
VVER 440/230
2 X 440 MWe
Spain[95] José Cabrera PWR
1 x 160 MWe
38 years
Dismantling [96]
Objective: green field in 2018[97]
€217.8 million[98]
Spain Santa María de Garoña
1 x 466 MWe
(by Dutch RDM)
1966–2013 Defueled
. Asked for renewal of license that was denied energy-politically from the government. Is in decommissioning state
Spain Vandellós
Unit 1
480 MWe
18 years
fire in a turbogenerator
SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
Phases 1 and 2: €93 million
Sweden Barsebäck
Units 1, 2
BWR 2 x 615 MW Reactor 1: 24 years 1975–1999
Reactor 2: 28 years 1977 – 2005
SAFSTOR: demolition will begin in 2020 The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority has assessed that the costs for decommissioning and final disposal for the Swedish nuclear power industry may be underestimated by SKB by at least 11 billion Swedish crowns ($1.63 billion)[99]
Switzerland[100] DIORIT MWe CO2-Gas-heavy water
Switzerland LUCENS 8,3 MWe CO22-Gas-heavy water
Incident: fire in 1969
Switzerland SAPHIR 0,01–0,1 MWe
(Light water pool)
39 years
(Experimental demonstrator)
Ukraine Chernobyl-4
(110 km
from Kiev)
1000 MWe
hydrogen explosion,
then graphite fire (1986)

(INES 7)
(armed concrete "sarcophagus")
Past: ?
Future: riding sarcophagus in steel[103]
United Kingdom[104] Berkeley Magnox
(2 x 138 MWe)
27 years
SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
around $2600/kWe
United Kingdom Bradwell Magnox
2 x 121 MWe
1962–2002 SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
around $2600/kWe
United Kingdom Dounreay: DMTR
(Research facility of UKAEA)
Fast-neutron reactor 1958–1969 Demolition contract awarded December 2018[105]
United Kingdom Dounreay: DFR
(Research facility of UKAEA)
Loop-type fast breeder.

14 MWe.[106]

1959–1977 Defueling[107]
United Kingdom Dounreay: PFR
(Research facility of UKAEA)
Pool-type fast breeder cooled by liquid sodium, fueled with MOX.250 MWe.[108] 1974–1994
(with average 26.9% load)[109]
Delays and reliability problems before reaching full power.[110]
Remotely operated robot 'Reactorsaurus' will be sent in to decontaminate equipment as too dangerous a task for a human.[111] Control panel has been earmarked for an exhibition at London Science Museum (2016). [112]
United Kingdom Sellafield-Calderhall Magnox
4 x 60 MWe
first nuclear power station.
August 27, 1956 – March 31, 2003 (World's first nuclear power station to generate electrical power on an industrial scale [113]) The first reactor had been in use for 47 years.[114] SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition).[115]
around $2600/kWe
United Kingdom Chapelcross Magnox
4 x 60 MWe
("sister reactor" to Calderhall)
1959–2004 SAFSTOR: 30 years
(internal demolition)
around $2600/kWe
United Kingdom Winfrith-Dorset
Research area of
100 MWe
Operated from
1958 to 1990.
All nine reactors mostly dismantled[116]


United States Crystal River 3
860 MWe
33 years
Plant scheduled to restart in April 2011, but the project encountered a number of delays.[120] After repairs, additional delamination began to occur in adjacent bays. Duke Energy announced in Feb-2013 that the Crystal River NPP would be permanently shut down.[121]
From 2015 to 2019 in defueling.
expected SAFSTOR 2019–2067

Decommissioning Periods (Start – End); Duration (years)
Period 1: Planning and Preparations (Jun 2013 – Jul 2015) 2.08 y.
P. 2a: Dormancy w/Wet Fuel Storage (Jul 2015 – Aug 2019) 4.12 y.
2b: Dormancy w/Dry Fuel Storage (Aug 2019 – Dec 2036) 17.39 y.
2c: Dormancy w/No Fuel Storage (Dec 2036 – May 2067) 30.39 y.
P. 3a: Site Reactivation & D. Prep (May 2067 – Nov 2068) 1.50 y.
P. 4a: Large Component Removal (Nov 2068 – May 2070) 1.45 y.
4b & 4c: Systems Removal & Building Remediation(2070–2072) 2 y.
Period 4f: License Termination (May 2072 – Feb 2073) 0.75y.
Period 5b: Site Restoration (Feb 2073 – Aug 2074) 1.50 y.

~$1,2 billion[122]
United States Dresden
Unit 1
207 MWe
18 years
Defueled in safety in 1998
now in SAFSTOR[123]
Fuel in on-site dry-casks.[124]
United States Fort St. Vrain GS
380 MWe
12 years
Immediate Decon $195 million
United States Rancho Seco NGS[125]
PWR 913 MWe 12 years
(Closed after a referendum in 1989)
SAFSTOR: 5–10 years
completed in 2009 [126]

Fuel in insite long-term dry-cask storage

$538.1 million [127]
United States Three Mile Island
Unit 2
PWR 913 MWe 1978–1979
Core meltdown incident
Phase 2 (1979)
$805 million
United States Shippingport
BWR 60 MWe 25 years
(closed in 1989)
Decon completed
dismantled in 5 years
(first small experimental reactor)
$98.4 million[130]
United States San Onofre NGS Unit 1
PWR 436 MWe[131] Westinghouse Electric Corporation 25 years
Reactor dismantled and used as a storage site for spent fuel.[132]
United States San Onofre NGS Units 2, 3
2 x PWR 1,075 MWe[131] Unit 2: 1983–2013
Unit 3: 1984–2013

In 2011, Edison finished replacing the steam generators in both reactors with improved Mitsubishi ones, but the new design had several problems, cracked, causing leaks and vibrations.[134]

Permanent shutdown – DECON
soon defueling[135]
2014 cost forecast:
$3.926 billion[136]
to $4.4 billion[137]
United States Piqua NGS
OCM (Organically Cooled/Moderated) reactor 46 MWe[138] 2 years
(closed in 1966)
(coolant design inadequate for neutron flux)
United States Trojan
PWR 1,180 MWe 16 years
(Closed in 1993 because of proximity to seismic fault)
(cooling tower demolished in 2006)
United States Yankee Rowe
PWR 185 MW 31 years
Decon completed – Demolished
(greenfield open to visitors) [140]
$608 million with $8 million per year upkeep
United States Maine Yankee PWR
860 MWe
24 years
(closed in 1996)
Decon completed – Demolished in 2004
(greenfield open to visitors) [141][142]
$635 million[143]
United States Vermont Yankee BWR 620 MWe
(General Electric)
42 years
~$1.24 billion
United States Exelon –
Units 1, 2
2 x PWR 1040 MWe
25 years

(opening of the site to visitors for 2018) [144]

$900–1,100 million
(2007 dollars)[145]
United States Pacific Gas & Electric
Humboldt Bay
Unit 3
BWR 63 MWe 13 years
(Shut down per seismic retrofit)
On July 2, 1976, Humboldt Bay Power Plant (HBPP) Unit 3 was shut down for annual refueling and to conduct seismic modifications. In 1983, updated economic analyses indicated that restarting Unit 3 would probably not be cost-effective, and in June 1983, PG&E announced its intention to decommission the unit. On July 16, 1985, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued Amendment No. 19 to the HBPP Unit 3 Operating License to change the status to possess-but-not-operate, and the plant was placed into a SAFSTOR status. Unknown – Closure date: December 31, 2015[146]

Decommissioning of ships, mobile reactors, and military reactors

Many warships and a few civil ships have used nuclear reactors for propulsion. Former Soviet and American warships have been taken out of service and their power plants removed or scuttled. Dismantling of Russian submarines and ships and American submarines and ships is ongoing. Marine power plants are generally smaller than land-based electrical generating stations.

The biggest American military nuclear facility for the production of weapons-grade plutonium was Hanford site (in the State of Washington), now defueled, but in a slow and problematic process of decontamination, decommissioning, and demolition. There is "the canyon", a large structure for the chemical extraction of plutonium with the PUREX process. There are also many big containers and underground tanks with a solution of water, hydrocarbons and uranium-plutonium-neptunium-cesium-strontium (all highly radioactive). With all reactors now defueled, some were put in SAFSTOR (with their cooling towers demolished). Several reactors have been declared National Historic Landmarks.

See also


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External links

  • Media related to Nuclear decommissioning at Wikimedia Commons
  • NUCLEAR ENERGY AGENCY of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development: Cost of Decommissioning Nuclear Energy Plants (2016)
  • UNITED STATES NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION: Backgrounder on Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants
  • Business Insider – UK: Getting Rid Of Old Nuclear Reactors Worldwide Is Going To Cost Way More Than People Think
  • Germany's economy minister Sigmar Gabriel says state won't pay for nuclear decommissioning (May 18, 2014)
  • Nuclear Decommissioning Report ( is the multi-media platform for the nuclear decommissioning industry.
  • is a portal with information on nuclear decommissioning
  • US Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • European website on decommissioning of nuclear installations
  • Decommissioning Fund Methodologies for Nuclear Installations in the EU, rapport by the German Wuppertal Institute, commissioned by the European Commission. May 2007.
  • Master 'Nuclear Energy' – Decommissioning and Waste management