By DAVE GRAM
The Associated Press
MONTPELIER, Vt. - The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will notify the owners of 26 nuclear plants Friday that they are not saving enough money to dismantle the reactors once they're no longer operating.
In a memo obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, the agency told congressional offices it would make a formal announcement of its findings on Friday. It said it would work with the plants on a case-by-case basis to develop remedial savings plans.
"Normally, there are only four to five plants that fall into this category," NRC senior congressional affairs officer Eugene Dacus wrote in the memo. "The NRC believes that the economy may account for the unusually high number this year."
The plants deemed coming up short range from the Vermont Yankee station near Brattleboro to the three Browns Ferry reactors near Decatur, Ala.
The AP reported Tuesday that over the past two years, estimates of dismantling costs for the entire U.S. nuclear industry have soared by more than $4.6 billion due to rising energy and labor costs, while the funds that are supposed to pay for shutting plants down have lost $4.4 billion in the battered stock market.
NRC officials had said last week that about 30 reactors would receive letters this week saying their decommissioning funds were running short. That was based on the agency's review of status reports on the funds filed every other year by plant owners; the most recent batch was due March 31.
NRC officials also said another 19 plants would have to be mothballed for up to 60 years after they shut down, partly in hopes that their decommissioning funds would see enough investment growth to pay for dismantling the reactors and removing radioactive components.
Such long periods of idleness have raised concerns that plant systems could decay over time, raising the chances of an accident that might release radioactivity to the environment. Various reports by government agencies and independent groups also have raised alarm that the plants could be tempting targets for terrorists bent on creating radioactive "dirty bombs."
NRC officials say the plants will be guarded and monitored and that the risks will be small.
Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive and decommissioning expert who recently has been consulting with groups critical of the industry, said Thursday the NRC's data still do not present a complete picture of the likely costs of cleaning up nuclear sites.
Gundersen said the level of decommissioning required by the NRC, in which radioactivity is lowered but some structures are allowed to remain in place, does not achieve the full site restoration some states call for.
"If you want your site back to the condition it was (before plants were built), the NRC numbers are not going to get you there," he said. "You're going to have to put in hundreds of millions more."