“Kewaunee” is commonly believed to be a Native American word meaning “river of the lost.” For the workers of the Kewaunee Power Plant, located in Carlton, Wisconsin, this supposed translation seems very fitting. The Virginia-based power company Dominion that owns the plant, announced on October 22nd that it would begin the decommissioning process of the nuclear power plant due to the low profit margins of nuclear power compared to the cheap price of natural gas. The plant was Dominion’s fourth largest plant, generating 556 megawatts of power from its single pressurized water reactor. That amount of power is enough to power the needs of 140,000 homes. The Kewaunee station was one of only two operating reactors in Wisconsin, leaving only one active nuclear plant (located in Two Rivers).
Although it was opened in 1974, its current owners didn’t purchase the plant until 2005. According to Dominion PR Rep Jim Norvelle, the company had hopes of creating an entire fleet of nuclear plants in the Midwest. “Other stations were put up for sale or auction, but the company was not successful in acquiring them. A Midwest nuclear fleet would have allowed us to benefit from having nuclear resources close to one another so economies of scale could lead to cost savings,” said Norvelle. Instead, the revenue stream from the small, single unit plant was not enough to support its cost structure. Additionally, the station’s power purchase agreements are ending at a time when there are projected low wholesale electricity prices in the region. Dominion chairman, president, and CEO Thomas Farrell II stated that despite “how well the station is running and the dedication of the employees” it wouldn’t make economic sense for the company to continue operation of the plant. Adding insult to injury, in 2008 Dominion had recertified the plant for twenty additional years, extending the license through 2033. Dominion attempted to sell the plant for more than a year, but it was unable to find a buyer, making shutting down and decommissioning the plant the only viable option.
Decommissioning a nuclear power plant is no easy task. A decommissioned site must be completely shut down within sixty years, and in many cases it doesn’t occur a year sooner than that limit. On a base level, shutting down the reactor, removing the fuel and placing it in storage is a relatively easy task for those in the nuclear power business. In fact, most nuclear power plants shut down every eighteen months or so to refuel and this process is repeated every time. Currently, there are multiple closed reactors in the U.S., all in varying stages of decommissioning. The Zion nuclear power station in Illinois for example was closed in the 1990s and is currently being decommissioned under the watchful eye of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - the independent government agency that oversees nuclear reactor safety and operation. Once the generation of electricity has been stooped in the Kewaunee plant in the second quarter of 2013, all of the fuel in the reactor core will be transferred to storage until the federal government removes it to a federal repository. Eventually, all parts of the station will be removed, restoring the site to a “greenfield” status, meaning land that has been used by industry is returned to the conditions that existed before the construction of the plant. Dominion expects all of the costs incurred during this process to be covered by the station’s decommissioning trust.
Although Dominion continues to see the “importance of nuclear energy as part of any balanced energy policy in the United States” the closing of the plant does make one wonder about the state of nuclear power in the U.S. Of the 104 commercial reactors currently active in the U.S. almost all were started during, or prior to, 1974. After the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 and declining economic factors, many planned projects were shut down before they even began. Everyone from environmentalists to scientists to engineers have had something to say in debating the issues of nuclear power like accidents, radioactive waste disposal and nuclear terrorism. Despite, or possibly in light of this, many perceive a nuclear renaissance occurring in the U.S. The nation continues to be the world’s largest producer of nuclear power as the government is beginning to take a more active role in nuclear power production. Hopefully, the closing of older plants like the Kewaunee plant will spark new research and development of nuclear technology, furthering the nuclear renaissance.