BERLIN — The problem weighs nearly 300,000 tons. Tubes, generators, a concrete containment shell. And there is a gigantic volume of steel and scrap material alone at the former atomic power station in Obrigheim in the state of Baden-Württemberg. The most dangerous work on the highly radioactive materials is done by robot.

Nine years after Germany's oldest atomic power plant closed, high-security work is still in full swing. The closure marked the start of the biggest demolition program in Germany's industrial history. Obrigheim is just the beginning. Seventeen more facilities are scheduled to follow. But Obrigheim serves to illustrate what is going to become a massive problem for the whole world over the next few years.

A new study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that the dismantling of old nuclear power stations around the globe risks becoming a huge cost risk. "Nearly 200 reactors are going to be shut down by 2040," the IEA writes in its new World Energy Outlook.

There are currently 434 nuclear facilities in operation worldwide. The Paris-based IEA estimates the cost of dismantling them at "over $100 billion." But because of limited experience with decontamination, costs can't be estimated with a high degree of accuracy, the IEA says. The wave of dismantlement, which concerns primarily Europe, the United States, Russia and Japan, could in fact cost substantially more.

In the next two and a half decades the biggest die-out of power stations in the history of atomic energy will complete itself. "Many nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their approved life cycle, and others are being closed down for political reasons," says Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist, who adds that "we've never experienced such a concentration before."

Obrigheim's nuclear plant — Photo: Felix Koenig/GFDL

Which is why the IEA is anticipating serious problems. "Only very few countries are going to be able to cope with this," Birol warns, because dismantlement is highly demanding technically and can take between 15 and 20 years depending on the facility. Governments and suppliers should already be putting the means aside to be able to meet future costs, the study says.

The urgent warning about the cost of the nuclear sector's radioactive heritage should spark debate in Germany about how to deal with companies running nuclear power plants, like Eon, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW. Energy companies would be glad to have the taxpayer bear part of the cost for the difficult dismantlement process and burial of waste.

Funding cleanup

A suggestion that became public last spring was for energy companies to place their reserves of 30 billion euros in a foundation that would assume responsibility for the dismantling of all atomic power plants, including the risks of tearing them down and burying waste. But environmental associations have refused the model out of fear that the companies' reserves would not fully cover costs.

The annual World Energy Outlook is the IEA's most important publication. In it, experts outline various scenarios about energy supply under various conditions. Despite all the risks of nuclear power stations, the organization is expecting a 60% rise in electricity production from nuclear plants. The current 392 gigawatts should grow to 620 gigawatts by 2040.

The study predicts that atomic power will continue to play a big role in the future mainly in China, Russia, Korea and India. Because the need for electricity will increase sharply, the share of atomic power in the worldwide energy mix will rise one percentage point, to 12%.

That means aggravating a problem that until now has remained unsolved. Not a single country has yet to find a permanent burial site for atomic waste, IEA expert Birol complains. The volume of burned-out fuel elements will double to 700,000 tons, the study predicts. The energy agency urges the world to devote thought to this urgently, or else "it will become one big headache."