End of One Era, Start of Another

The Maanshan nuclear power plant on the Hengchun peninsula in southern Taiwan will be retired in 2025. Photo: Wikipedia

Decommissioning will keep Taiwan’s nuclear sector busy for decades and potentially offer global opportunities.

When unit 2 at the Maanshan nuclear power plant near the southern tip of Taiwan reaches the end of its license on May 17, 2025, all nuclear power generation on Taiwan will cease. 

At the peak, the six operating reactors had been responsible for close to 20% of Taiwan’s total power generation. An additional two-unit facility, the controversial Lungmen nuclear power plant, was nearly completed when the project was abandoned in 2014 after years of on-again, off-again construction.  

The rise and fall of Taiwan’s nuclear sector reflects global trends. Taiwan’s commercial use of nuclear power dates back to the 1970s, the heyday of the global nuclear industry. The Middle East oil embargo had wreaked havoc on global energy markets and countries were desperate for alternatives. The number of nuclear-power reactors in the world rose from 90 in 1970 to 253 by 1980, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

A series of incidents culminating with the Fukushima disaster in 2011 raised widespread doubts about the safety of nuclear power. While public attitudes toward nuclear energy have modified somewhat in recent years as concern about climate change has grown, the respected World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) 2019 notes that the industry appears to have reached its historic peak and is now in decline. 

Yeh Tsung-kuang, director of the Nuclear Science and Technology Development Center at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU), sees that decline reflected in enrollment numbers in nuclear engineering programs. “The number of students is getting less and less,” he says, since students believe that “it’s not a career with a bright future.”

Yet the decline of nuclear power holds the promise of substantial business opportunities related to nuclear power plant decommissioning. 

WNISR 2019 notes that as of July 1, 2019, 181 reactors worldwide had been closed, with 162 of the units – Taiwan’s Chinshan plant among them – awaiting or in the process of decommissioning. Only 19 reactors had been fully decommissioned, however, and just 10 had been returned to greenfield status. While the entire process takes an average of 19 years, it can be completed in as little as six years or as long as 42 years, according to the report. 

A further 183 units will shut down in the 2020s and 127 units in the 2030s, WNISR 2019 estimates.

The result is a global market that New York-based Kenneth Research valued at US$387 billion in 2016, with growth to US$891 billion by 2023, based on a compound annual growth rate of 12.71%. India’s Mordor Intelligence sees similar annual growth of 12.1% between 2019 and 2024, while Seattle-based Coherent Market Insights more conservatively puts CAGR between 2019 and 2027 at 7%.  

Decommissioning a nuclear power plant is a complex and costly endeavor. After typically operating for 40 years, the reactor vessels are heavily contaminated with radiation and must be decontaminated either mechanically or chemically. Spent fuel in the cooling pools must be removed and transferred to interim storage, and all structures must be decontaminated and demolished. As each nuclear power plant was custom-built, the decommissioning must likewise be site-specific. 

“Decommissioning was rarely considered in the reactor design, and the costs for decommissioning at the end of the lifetime of a reactor were usually discounted away, and thus, subsequently, largely ignored,” says WNISR 2019.

There are three different strategies for the decommissioning process: immediate dismantling, deferred dismantling, and entombment. In the first, the plant is dismantled within months or years of shutting down. In deferred dismantling, spent fuel and other waste are removed, after which the plant is kept in “a state of safe enclosure for 30-100 years followed by dismantling,” according to an OECD report. In entombment, the entire plant is encased in a thick layer of concrete, as was done with Chernobyl. Taiwan is opting for immediate dismantling. 

Prominent players in the nuclear decommissioning business include Bechtel, General Electric, Magnox, Sellafield, Hitachi, Babcock, CH2M Hill, AECOM, and Westinghouse Electric. Taipower is reportedly in discussions with several of them for decommissioning services. So far a tender has been opened only for consultants to help develop an engineering plan. 

Market researchers note that the global market is fragmented and highly challenged by governmental and social factors, leaving space for possible new technologies and players. NTHU’s Yeh, who works closely with Taipower, sees opportunities for Taiwanese technology to enter this space. 

“Taipower has been assigned the task to develop its own decommissioning technology, including decontamination,” he says. “They want to make it a local technology so they can export it to other countries working on decommissioning.”

Despite the opportunities, Yeh says it is difficult to interest students in this field. “Most young people don’t like doing decommissioning or waste disposal because it’s kind of like taking care of garbage,” he observes. “We’ve been telling students that decommissioning takes so long that it’s possible to get an entire career out of it, but it’s very difficult to convince them.”