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What happens to nuclear power plants after they are closed?

As the world pivots towards more sustainable and renewable sources of energy, numerous nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their operational lives. What happens when these massive facilities cease to produce power? The answer lies in a process known as 'DECON', or immediate dismantling, a comprehensive and highly regulated protocol that ensures the safe and responsible handling of these decommissioned sites.

Understanding DECON: When a nuclear power plant has exhausted its useful life or is no longer economically viable, the process of DECON begins. DECON is essentially the immediate dismantling or decontamination of the facility after its closure. This process involves the removal of equipment, structures, and any part of the facility that may contain radioactive contaminants.

The overarching aim is to clean and decontaminate the site to a level that permits release of the property, thereby terminating the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) license over the facility.

Importance of DECON:

The importance of DECON cannot be overstated. Nuclear power plants, while highly efficient, are home to many hazardous radioactive elements. When these plants are decommissioned, there needs to be a comprehensive process to ensure that these elements are contained and handled safely. DECON ensures the prevention of any residual radiation effects and maintains the safety of the environment and the local population.

The DECON Process:

The process of DECON is meticulously planned and rigorously regulated. It begins with a careful assessment of the site's radiological conditions, identifying areas that need immediate attention. Following this initial evaluation, a comprehensive dismantling plan is designed, focusing on removing any equipment, structures, or parts of the facility containing radioactive contaminants. This could include anything from the reactor vessel and its internal components, spent fuel, to radioactive waste material.

Each removed component is then carefully packaged, following strict safety protocols, for disposal or for transport to a secured storage site. These components are categorized based on their radioactive levels to ensure safe and appropriate handling and disposal methods.

After the removal of all contaminated components, the next step is decontaminating the site. This is done through several methods, including chemical cleaning, abrasive blasting, and high-pressure washing. This process may take a significant amount of time depending on the contamination level.

Following decontamination, the site is surveyed for any remaining radioactive material. If the survey verifies that the site is sufficiently decontaminated, it is released from regulatory control. This signifies the termination of the NRC license and effectively ends the plant's nuclear chapter.


Decommissioning a nuclear power plant is not as simple as turning off the switch and walking away. It is a long, complex, and arduous process that can take many years. The process of DECON is essential to protect both the environment and local communities from any possible radioactive hazards. As more nuclear plants reach the end of their operational lives, the application and effectiveness of DECON will continue to play a pivotal role in the landscape of nuclear power and its legacy.

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