EnergySolutions Dismantles Zion Nuclear Reactor In A First-Of-Its-Kind Transfer

As we all have seen, nuclear power is a dangerous business. Even tearing down a plant is no easy feat.

EnergySolutions Dismantles Zion Nuclear Reactor In A First-Of-Its-Kind Transfer
Illustration by Bryan Christie Design

JUST AS JAPAN wrestles with fears of a meltdown at tsunami-battered nuclear reactors, an American company is tearing down what was once the world’s largest nuclear-power supplier — the Zion, Illinois, plant just outside of Chicago. When it started up in 1973, Zion provided power to roughly 2 million homes. Exelon Corp. shut it down in 1998 because it was no longer profitable. For the past 12 years, Zion has sat in mothballs as Exelon paid about $10 million annually to babysit it. Now the federal government is allowing Exelon, in a first-of-its-kind deal, to transfer custody to EnergySolutions, a nuclear-waste-disposal outfit.


As part of the complex process, EnergySolutions will remove the dormant spent-fuel rods from inside two reactor buildings and cart off less-radioactive material. What’s in it for EnergySolutions? Nearly $1 billion in business from a fund that Exelon set aside years ago for this purpose with utility-customer fees. The dismantling and transportation require technical skill and an innovative business plan that might become a model for other plants gone dark. Below we highlightt five steps in the process.


Infographic: Dismantling a Nuclear Reactor 

1 | Fuel-Rod Removal

EnergySolutions will place the 2,224 bundles of nuclear-fuel rods into dry cask storage. The bundles are packed into 61 steel canisters, known as casks, and the casks are lowered into a concrete sleeve, able to withstand temperatures up to 1,475 degrees, tornado winds, and impact from objects the size of a vehicle traveling 126 miles per hour.

Storing nuclear fuel
These now-loaded sleeves, which weigh 157 tons each, are transported to and then placed on a concrete pad that’s 3 feet thick and about the size of a football field. They will remain on the site indefinitely, with armed guards watching over them. Vegetation will hide the pad from public view.

2 | Rip and Ship

In 2012, workers will take apart the 3-foot-thick reinforced-concrete containment domes that sit over the reactors. They’ll tear out the large radioactive components, such as steam generators, reactor internals, and piping.


Demolition crews will transport 4 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste (including desks, dirt, wiring, and clothes — enough to fill 800 railcars) and the reactors’ large radioactive guts (steam generators the size of commercial jets, reactor pumps as big as space capsules, and large-diameter piping) and ship them to a disposal facility in Clive, Utah.

3 | Pulverizing

At the Clive facility, the radioactive waste and components will be pulverized into fist-size chunks and buried in aboveground graves, which will be monitored for any possible leaks.

Once the nuclear waste has been entombed, the domes taken down, and the radioactive parts pulverized, workers will tear down any remaining office buildings and then plant grass on the 257-acre campus. The hope is that this former nuclear-waste site evolves into a green space.