It’s time to stop paying for the Halden Reactor’s operation and start paying for it’s decommissioning

halden-reactor-0 Inside the Halden Reactor. (Photo: Institute for Energy Technology)

Despite numerous efforts, there are still major shortcomings in the way Norway secures its nuclear waste, and the government instead subsidizes the Halden nuclear research facility whose research no one is particularly interested in buying.

Halden, which is operated by the  Institute for Energy Technology, or IFE went into service in 1959. It is a 25 megawatt boiling water reactor and is one or Norway’s two operating nuclear research reactors. Since the first reactor went into service in 1951, Norway has produced about 17 tons of spent nuclear fuel, 60 percent of which comes from the Halden reactor itself.

The safe operation of the reactor has often come into question as well. In October of last year, the reactor suffered a fuel error which led to a small leak of iodine 131. This led to a hydrogen buildup as well as concerns about the stability of the reactor’s cooling system and its fuel.

Indeed, far from offering “research for a better future” – as the IFE advertises its services – the Halden reactor has become a money pit into which the government must stop throwing its money.

At the same time, Halden is making big bucks for the IFE. Last year, the reactor operated at loss of NOK 80 million, or a little more than $10 million. This year, it’s expected to lose another NOK 30 million kroner – this even after it received an extraordinary operating grant of NOK 50 million.

In 2019, the IFE will require about NOK 150 million ($18.7 million) in new revenues in order to operate without a loss – which is the amount they are asking for in state subsidies in next year’s budget.

Much of the reason for the turbulent finances owes to the fact that Halden has fewer and fewer foreign financiers. At the moment, it seems the reactor is being run only for the benefit of its creditors. Because of that we think it’s high time for the Norwegian government to stop paying for nuclear research no one wants to buy.

We at Bellona would therefore suggest that instead of continuing to fund operating grants for the Halden reactor, the state instead supply funding for conversion. Such a rethinking of this financial support would allow the IFE to shed its mantle as an operating organization and become instead an organization that could handle the reactor’s decommissioning and dismantlement.

Of course, such a shift entails expenses all its own. But this is money worth spending. It should cost approximately NOK 2.5 billion ($312 million) to ensure the safe handling of the reactor’s unstable fuel, which should be placed in safe storage as soon as possible.

In our estimates, secure decommissioning of the Halden reactor will likely cost another NOK 2.5 billion between 2018 and 2018. Therefore a total of NOK 5 billion ($625 million) should be allocated over the next 10 years for the most serious nuclear cleanup in Norway.

Such a long-term allocation would, among other things, ensure that that an appropriate level of expertise is maintained for dealing with the inevitable nuclear cleanup. It would be a wise and necessary use of funds that would allow the country to handle the nuclear cleanup questions posed by Halden in the appropriate way – as Norway is committed to doing.

Nils Bøhmer is a nuclear physicist and general manager of Bellona.

Nils Bøhmer