All power plants, coal, gas and nuclear, have a finite life beyond which it is not economically feasible to operate them. Generally speaking, early nuclear plants were designed for a life of about 30 years. Though refurbishment, some have proved capable of continuing well beyond this. Newer plants are designed for a 40- to 60- and recently approved for an 80-year operating license.
At the end of the life cycle of any power plant, it needs to be decommissioned, cleaned up and demolished. The site is made available for other uses or to site the next generation of advanced molten chloride salt fast reactors and leverage the electricity and distribution infrastructure to the existing national grid.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has defined three options for decommissioning a nuclear power plant, also internationally adopted:
Option 1: Immediate dismantling, which is the most cost-effective and safest way. This approach usually transfers the Nuclear Regulatory Commission license and funding to a specialized decommissioning company like Holtec International. The nuclear fuel is placed in canister/cask and transferred to interim storage, either above ground or subsurface like Humboldt and SONGS in California. The rest of the infrastructure is staged for recycling elsewhere and the site is available for reuse.
Option 2: Safe Enclosure or deferred dismantling for 60 years, where the facility is placed into a safe storage configuration until the eventual dismantling and decontamination activities occur after residual radioactivity has decayed. This approach is used where deferred cost is necessary for financial reasons.
Option 3: Entombment or permanent surface burial, like what has been done at Chernobyl and is currently being done at Fukushima. The enclosure will protect the surrounding landscape from contamination and the site will basically become a dead zone, never to be used again.
Regardless of which method is used, the unused or spent nuclear fuel needs to be removed and transported to an interim site for recycling and reuse as new fuel for the next-generation power plants with molten salt nuclear reactors. This is where the HI-STORE CISF site in New Mexico could become a place for nuclear fuel storage and an eventual molten salt fuel conversion facility.