What is Nuclear Decommissioning?
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What is Nuclear Decommissioning?

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What is Nuclear Decommissioning?

By Jessie West | November 11 2021

How Are Nuclear Power Plants Decommissioned?

People often think of power plants as places bustling with nonstop activity, generating the electricity residential, commercial and industrial areas need. However, for several reasons, the time comes when some power plants must cease operations for good. This moment begins the process of power plant decommissioning.

The process of decommissioning nuclear power plants involves more than turning off a switch for the last time and calling it a day. Proper nuclear decommissioning is a process that can span decades, and there are strict protocols you must follow to stay regulation compliant. Learn more about how to decommission power plants.

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What Does It Mean to Decommission a Nuclear Power Station?

Two events must take place for a nuclear power station to be decommissioned. First, the plant must be retired from service, meaning it will no longer be used to generate power. Second, the operating licenses given by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must be terminated. These two events together signal that a nuclear power plant is officially out of commission and that the complete decommissioning process can begin.

Nuclear power plants are decommissioned under such stringent processes because of the threat they pose to human life, animal life and the surrounding natural environment. This is due to the extreme levels of radiation present in the equipment and other components of nuclear power plants. Unregulated radiation can seep into the surrounding ecosystem and cause severe, long-lasting consequences.

Proper nuclear power plant decommissioning services that follow NRC specifications are essential to retire a nuclear power plant properly and ensure the environment stays as safe and healthy as possible.



Types of Nuclear Decommissioning Processes

When it’s time to decommission your power plant, you have a few options you can take. Three main nuclear power plant decommissioning processes exist, each with its own timeframe, actions and benefits. Know which one you should pursue by learning about each process.


SAFSTOR, which stands for Safe Storage, involves keeping a nuclear power plant intact within protective storage for an extended length of time. The time in storage gives the power plant’s radioactive elements time to decay and grow stable. In some instances, nuclear power plants can stay this dormant state for several decades — even up to 50 years — before transitioning to the DECON phase.

While in SAFSTOR, all the main components of the power plant remain where you leave them. This includes all fuel pools, the turbine, the reactor vessel and other essential elements of nuclear power generation. You must remove all fuel from the reactor vessel, placing it in dry storage on-site or in fuel pools. Throughout the time the power plant sits in SAFSTOR, the NRC will continually inspect the site and assess its stability and risk to the environment.

One of the benefits of SAFSTOR is that it gives the NRC and the licensee time to save money in a trust fund to use for future stages of the decommissioning process. If the funds for decommissioning are not available at the start of the process, SAFSTOR could be a good option to safely decommission the power plant and while saving money.


DECON, which stands for Decontamination, is a more aggressive yet ultimately essential approach to decommissioning a nuclear power plant. As you read above, DECON is the final stage of the SAFSTOR decommissioning process.

In short, DECON involves decontaminating or removing radioactive materials and equipment. Removing radioactive items like nuclear fuel rods and other equipment will significantly reduce the plant’s radioactivity. Workers will then be safer during any subsequent decommissioning operations.

DECON can take around five years but can last longer or shorter depending on the unique factors associated with a power plant’s decommissioning process. Most often, power plant operators will take a dual approach, implementing aspects of SAFSTOR to buy time and save money while engaging in some DECON practices to make the site safer over time.

Environmental Alternatives, Inc. (EAI) specializes in delivering DECON services for nuclear decommissioning projects. You can trust EAI with decommissioning projects of any size since we’ve been performing our services for projects both big and small since 1989. We use state-of-the-art processes like concrete shaving and CO2 decontamination to keep workers safer as they carry out their crucial decontamination tasks. EAI can get the task done when you’re ready to decommission your nuclear power plant.


The ENTOMB process plays out as its name implies. Here, radioactive contaminants are encased permanently on-site without removal. For a proper entombment, structurally sound materials must be used, such as steel shelters or concrete. In some instances, concrete will encapsulate the entire plant. After entombment is complete, the NRC and licensee will monitor and maintain the site until radioactivity levels decay to a permittable level for official property release.

The ENTOMB process has not been used yet in the United States, but it has been used in other countries. For instance, the Chernobyl 4 reactor in Ukraine has been entombed in a permanent steel shelter to reduce and prevent radiation leaks.



Phases of Decommissioning

The decommissioning process occurs in the following three main phases:

The transition from operation to decommissioning: The decommissioning process begins when a licensee permanently shuts down operations at the power plant. This is the official transition from operation to decommissioning. You must submit a certification to the NRC certifying your plant’s permanent ending of operations within 30 days of the moment of the shutdown. You’ll also need to submit a planning report describing how you plan to proceed with the decommissioning process.

Major decommissioning activities: Soon after the NRC receives your planning report, you can begin major decommissioning activities. These can be any of the above three methods of decommissioning as laid out in your planning report. Some examples include the immediate removal of components like steam generators, pumps, valves, large piping systems and the reactor vessel. You could also choose to perform a blending of SAFSTOR and DECON, depending on if you want to save more money in your decommissioning trust fund as you continue the process.

License termination activities: Within two years of the expected license termination, the licensee must submit a license termination plan to the NRC that details important termination activities. Such activities include dismantlement activities, site characterization, any plans for the remediation of the site, plans for radiation surveyed and cost estimates. The ultimate goal of license termination and decommissioning is to relinquish the site to the public for safe use and repurposing.


Choose Environmental Alternatives, Inc. for Nuclear Power Plant Services

At Environmental Alternatives, Inc., we specialize in the decontamination challenges your power plant is currently facing. Whether you’re in the process of nuclear decontamination or you’re in need of heat recovery steam generator cleaning services, we have the equipment and abilities to solve your issue. Health and safety are our top priority, so you can feel confident when you choose EAI to help decontaminate your nuclear power plant.

Contact us today for more information. We look forward to serving you.