EU’s ex-Soviet nuclear reactors’ decommissioning over-budget and behind schedule

The Chernobyl-type nuclear reactor at Ignalina in Lithuania. It will be the first time in history this type of Soviet-era reactor has been decommissioned. [Wikimedia]

A slew of USSR-era nuclear reactors within the EU are years behind schedule in decommissioning and still require billions in funding, a damning Court of Auditors report found today (20 September).

Eight reactors across sites in three countries – Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovakia – were originally promised to be decommissioned as part of those countries’ EU accession process.

Yet all still have funding gaps, and long-term storage solutions are still at a “conceptual” stage and decades away from being built or ready, the report finds.

In an uncharacteristically strongly-worded report from the auditors, chief author Phil Wynn Owen said, “I am concerned that key decommissioning projects have suffered delays, that financing gaps remain, and that insufficient progress is being made towards final disposal of high-level waste.”

The estimated cost of decommissioning the Soviet-designed, first-generation nuclear reactors will be at least €5.7bn, and that is before any account of  long-term deep storage is taken into account.

Adding that, the audit team finds, and the cost rises to €11.4 billion.

The most worrying example is the Ignalina plant in Lithuania, which is home to the same type of reactors as Chernobyl, built in 1985 and 1987.

Chernobyl, in Ukraine, exploded in 1986.

That graphite reactor was originally due to be decommissioned by 2029, even though it was shut down in December 2004. That date has now slipped to 2038.

It will be the first time in the world such a Chernobyl-type graphite reactor has been decommissioned (rather than the emergency concrete sarcophagus which was built to entomb Chernobyl.)

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Although the report is careful to avoid taking a position as pro-or-anti-nuclear power per se or look at security implications of the current storage situation, it recommends no more direct EU Commission funding applies after 2020.

The auditors also cite a lack of know-how, a lack of historical data and incomplete inventories as hindering the decommissioning process.

Without making accusations of corruption, the report also complains that some of the EU money provided to help with decommissioning appears – in the case of Lithuania – to have been spent on staff maintaining the plant.

All three countries agreed to decommission their Soviet-era nuclear plants as part of accession to the EU, as upgrading to Western standards would be uneconomical.

The unspoken assumption in the report is such first-generation Soviet reactors are inherently of unsafe or outdated technology, compared with Western models.

The EU provided initial funds to acknowledge the costs of closing the plants, and relying on other energy sources, before the end of their planned lifespan.

Whilst also not accusing any member state of lying, the report pointedly states: “Member State authorities claim the plant have been irreversibly closed; however, not all of the expected outputs used by the European Commission to assess progress towards irreversible closure have been fully met.”

The “funding gap” – before any long-term storage solution which must last tens of thousands of years is factored in – has now reached €1.56bn in Lithuania, although only €28m in Bulgaria and €92m in Slovakia.

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The report essentially only looks at the cost of decommissioning – narrowly defined to mean the return of the reactor sites to brownfield or greenfield use by those member states.

A planned nuclear storage site in Finland – visited by the team – can only be used for domestic nuclear waste, after a vote by the Finnish parliament.

That leaves Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovakia to come up with their own storage solutions, lasting tens of thousands of years.

The report acerbically notes: “Future costs associated with nuclear decommissioning and final disposal of spent nuclear fuel are not always recognised as provisions and/or included in the notes to the accounts.

“This limits transparency and hampers authorities’ ability to plan adequately how to meet the future decommissioning and disposal costs.”

In a criticism largely accepted by the Commission, the auditors find: “The dedicated EU funding programmes for nuclear decommissioning have not created the right incentives for timely and cost-effective decommissioning.”

The sites are Bohunice nuclear power plant in Slovakia , Ignalina in Lithuania and Kozloduy in Bulgaria.

The report notes that all three “lack a massive steel and concrete containment structure as the final barrier against the mass release of radiation in an accident in the reactor an in main cooling circuit components”.

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