Lessons From Zion: How to Dismantle a Nuclear Power Plant

It will take ten years, but we finally have a solution for isolating the radioactive waste that's been floating in a pool for more than a decade


On Friday, March 11, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan. Thousands were washed out to sea, many homes were lifted from their foundations and entire communities were destroyed on that day, but the worst-case scenarios all involved the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and its six disabled reactors filled with radioactive material. Devastating though the natural disasters were, the man-made plant posed a far greater risk. Fear of radiation led to mass evacuations and concerns about food and water supplies around the country.

About 6,000 miles away, in the small town of Zion, Illinois, executives from EnergySolutions were still deciding how best to begin dismantling a nuclear power plant that had been permanently shut down more than a dozen years earlier.

A month later, Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) would tour the facilities with several other lawmakers. The group was quick to use the Fukushima disaster to advance their long-held political beliefs that all nuclear plants should be disabled. "I'm so passionately in favor of building the Yucca Mountain facility to take nuclear fuel away from the largest supply of drinking water in North America," Kirk said, referring to the United States' designated deep geological storage facility for high-level radioactive waste, according to NBC Chicago. As far as he's concerned, the 1,100 tons of waste sitting in and around the Zion plant's 257 acres need to be moved further from Lake Michigan and buried inside of a mountain adjacent to the Nevada National Security Site, where the U.S. has long tested nuclear devices only 65 miles outside of Las Vegas.

It only took Kirk about 12 years to voice that opinion; that's roughly how long the Zion plant has been sitting there, out of operation. Kirk and state Senator Suzi Schmidt, as well as U.S. representatives Robert Dold and Joe Walsh, said that the Fukushima disaster should serve as a wake-up call. It's time to move the fuel, they say, even though officials representing the nuclear industry have insisted that the waste is safe from both terrorist attacks and natural disasters, according to NBC Chicago's Ward Room. But it's not so easy. Dismantling a nuclear power plant is a lot more difficult than building one.

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The plant was built in 1973 and the first of two reactors started producing power in December of that year. The second reactor came online nine months later, in September 1974. Located on the Lake Michigan shoreline, the plant sits about 40 miles north of Chicago, the largest city between the United States' two coasts, as the crow flies, and 50 miles south of Milwaukee. The Zion Nuclear Power Station, as it is officially known, supplied power to Chicago and the northern quarter of Illinois.

It is only one of over 60 nuclear power plants in the United States, a country with more than 100 reactors licensed to operated. All together, those reactors are responsible for nearly 20 percent of the country's total electric energy generation and make the U.S. the world's largest supplier of commercial nuclear power. With demand for nuclear power softening, though, there is only one reactor currently under construction in the U.S. (Watts Bar, Tennessee). Of the 100-plus reactors operating across the country, construction started on all of them in 1974 or earlier.

Eventually, those plants will no longer be safe to operate and will need to be dismantled. The current situation at Zion, if all goes according to plan, could provide one blueprint for proceeding with that act. Still, Sen. Kirk is not going to get his way. While the buildings will be torn down, the Midwest's water supply will never be completely safe until the U.S. figures out where to store all of its radioactive waste. There's no chance that a massive tsunami like that which took down the Fukushima plant will hit Lake Michigan and flood Zion, but Kirk isn't the only one who fears a terrorist attack.

And note, as a geologically volatile island, Japan is prepared for both tsunamis and earthquakes. Schoolchildren throughout the country keep padded hoods on the backs of their seats at all times should an earthquake hit. Only two days before the devastating events of early March, an earthquake measuring greater than 7 on the Richter scale didn't manage to do much damage to the island nation. But once-in-a-lifetime events do occur.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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