Specialty Insurance

A Nuclear Dilemma

Funding shortfalls emerge in the decommissioning of unprofitable nuclear facilities.
By: | December 14, 2016 • 8 min read

By the end of 2016, Southern California Edison will select from among three teams of contractors vying for the $4.4 billion job of decommissioning its San Onofre 2 and 3 nuclear power reactors in San Clemente, Calif.

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Even before the lucrative contract is awarded, the jockeying for it marks a significant shift in risk management and planning for the entire nuclear industry: the emergence of a robust, competitive market to manage and execute the physical job as well as provide financing, insurance and risk management services.

The primary drivers of nuclear power plant decommissioning changed through the years, said Dan McGarvey, managing director of the U.S. power and utility practice at Marsh.

As of July, the NRC listed 19 reactors undergoing decommissioning. That number is expected to grow.

“The classic decommissioning was because of technologies that either ran their course or failed to live up to their potential. Others were driven by the untimely requirement to replace major components or effect expensive repairs,” he said.

In the future, the main driving forces are likely to be the dictates of energy markets, McGarvey said.

“Because of the unprecedented low cost of natural gas, some nuclear stations have been determined to be not economically viable.”

Whether utilities will be able to scrape together the funds to decommission plants is a question mark.

According to Arun Mani, a partner at Oliver Wyman, nuclear plants are facing a tough economic environment in large part because of low natural gas prices, which have pushed down wholesale power prices.

Rob Battenfield, senior vice president of downstream energy, JLT Specialty USA

Rob Battenfield, senior vice president of downstream energy, JLT Specialty USA

With an average operating cost of $35/MWh, nuclear plants are battling to stay afloat. In an environment of falling gas and power prices, nuclear power is often out of the money.

“When a nuclear plant closes,” said Mani, “especially if it is retired prematurely, it adds to a growing gap, the difference between funded and unfunded liabilities for decommissioning. Those estimated costs industrywide have risen by about 60 percent since 2008 and now stand at $88 billion, of which 31 percent, or $27 billion, is unfunded.”

“The underfunded or even unfunded costs of decommissioning worldwide is a huge issue,” said Rob Battenfield, senior vice president of downstream energy at JLT Specialty USA.

From the moment a utility is granted a license to operate by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), it is required to accumulate a trust fund against the ultimate cost of decommissioning. Historically, those costs have run about $480 million for one reactor, and about $800 million for a two-unit complex.

There are many variables in the matrix of operating or closing a nuclear plant, of which the mandated and actual size of the trust fund are only two. And in essence the trust fund is something between a running start and a show of good faith.

“If a utility is supposed to have $300 million in the trust fund, and it has that or even a little more, but the actual cost of closing the facility is going to be $400 million, then the utility is on the hook for that full $400 million,” Battenfield said.

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The market fluctuations that vex individuals planning for retirement do the same to trust funds, only on a larger scale.

“If a utility was planning to retire a unit in 2010, but its trust fund lost 40 percent of its value in the economic crisis of 2009, that would seem to favor safe storage for a few decades and give the fund time to recover,” Battenfield said.

According to Oliver Wyman’s Mani, “as the number of plants being decommissioned increases and the costs balloon, there are increasing fears around a potential shortfall in planned nuclear decommissioning funds.”

As of July, the NRC listed 19 reactors undergoing decommissioning. That number is expected to grow.

“In the past couple of years, about 6,000 MW of nuclear capacity has been shuttered,” Mani said.

“In all, analysts expect as much as 11 percent of the nation’s nuclear fleet will face premature retirement over the next several years.”

Decommissioning is not usually a core utility competence, as many have not performed the operation before. As a result, there’s a competitive market among major global contractors with specialization in the process.

Several utilities have transferred or plan to transfer shuttered nuclear plants — facilities, liabilities, licenses and trust funds — to those contractors. One example that is nearing the end of the process is Zion 2, in Illinois.

For all the regulatory complexity, the insurance program is relatively simple.

“There is now a large contingent of experienced people who can decommission plants,” said Battenfield.

While some may pause at the idea of a company or consortium, however large and experienced, taking on a reactor decommissioning as a for-profit business, Battenfield is sanguine.

“Through the whole project the NRC does not go away. Their oversight is arduous and detailed,” he said.

Covering it All

For all the regulatory complexity, the insurance program is relatively simple. The property coverage through the Nuclear Energy Insurance Ltd. (NEIL) mutual is available, and coverage from American Nuclear Insurance (ANI) is sufficient to meet mandatory limits for third-party liability on any license holder.

Outside of those, any commercial coverage is handled the same as if a factory or refinery were to be sold.

“They start fresh with workers’ comp and other commercial lines,” said Battenfield.

“The new owners will have their own carriers that they probably would like to keep. The incumbent carriers from the utility will either try to get into the new program, or take that opportunity to get out.”

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Once the decision is made to take a facility out of service, the operator must make the business decision either for prompt or protracted decommissioning. Immediate decontamination and demolition is known as “decon,” and takes several years.

The longer option involves securing and idling the site and is called safe storage or “safestor.” The facility can be kept in safestor for up to 60 years.

“The first risk management issue is which option to select,” McGarvey said.

“Prompt decommissioning involves a significant outlay of capital, but if the trust fund is sufficient it may make the most sense just to be done with it.”

If there are multiple reactors with at least one still in operation, the logical option is most likely safe storage, McGarvey said, because continuing operations offer economy of scale due to the fixed costs involved in operating an active site. But even if there are no other reactors, there are elements of risk mitigation in pursuing the safe storage option.

“Radiation begins to decay immediately after shut down, and over what could be 20 or more years of safe storage,” said McGarvey.

The ultimate cost of decommissioning could be markedly reduced because the radiation risk of fuel and components is lessened. Also, technology may improve over time and reduce future costs.

Conversely, the potential downside of waiting many years to decommission are the ongoing costs of plant upkeep, and the chance that a future regulatory climate may require levels of cleanup beyond those required today.

McGarvey summarized the step-down of coverage.

Dan McGarvey, managing director of the U.S. power and utility practice, Marsh

Dan McGarvey, managing director of the U.S. power and utility practice, Marsh

The chances of a radiation release significantly decrease once the reactor is no longer operating. Most utilities take their property coverage from limits as high as $2.75 billion down to the legal minimum of $1.06 billion. When the fuel stored in the spent-fuel pools cools to below a stipulated threshold, the utility is given greater latitude in selecting an appropriate first-party coverage limit.

At that point first-party coverage presents challenges in view of the need to preserve selected items of vital equipment in a facility that is otherwise slated for demolition.

“NEIL is very flexible and works well with utilities as they proceed through the decommissioning process,” said McGarvey.

Once the reactor is shut down, every asset on the site is divided into four categories for property coverage: Essential equipment is kept at replacement cost, less important components may be at actual cash value or agreed salvage value, and some buildings may be left without insurance save for decontamination coverage.

On the liability side, the first layer of coverage for an operating reactor is commercial insurance for a mandated $375 million. The next $13 billion is a mandatory retrospective pooling mechanism called the Price-Anderson Secondary Financial Protection Program that can assess up to $126 million per reactor, per incident, from all U.S. operators.

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“Once the plant is permanently shut, a utility will want to get out of that club, but must petition regulators to do so,” McGarvey said.

Once the spent fuel is cooled below a certain level, the operator can further petition to reduce commercial liability limits from $375 million to $100 million.

The nuclear liability policy provided by ANI is a modified occurrence policy, which has a 10-year discovery period. As such, it’s recommended that the policy not be allowed to lapse for many years even when the reactor is fully decommissioned.

Overall, operators have to be very careful about stepping down their nuclear liability coverage.

“You start with $13 billion,” McGarvey said, “which not only responds for radiological site releases, but also follows every truckload of low-level radiological waste shipped from the site. Eventually over time you get down to just $100 million of commercial insurance as the operator’s sole protection against nuclear liability claims.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Workers' Comp

Keeping Workers on Their Feet

Slip and fall prevention programs must interweave all of the factors contributing to the risk.
By: | July 6, 2017 • 11 min read

If you peruse the last decade’s worth of literature from the CDC, NIOSH, or numerous other agencies or organizations, you’re bound to come across the “good news” that slips, trips and falls are largely preventable.

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So it’s frustrating, then, that slip, trip and fall injuries consistently account for more than a quarter of all nonfatal occupational injuries, and at least 65 percent of those injuries happen on same-level walking surfaces. And those figures just don’t budge all that much from year to year.

According to the “2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index,” falls on same level currently rank as the second highest cause of disabling injuries in the U.S., with direct costs of $10.17 billion, accounting for 16.4 percent of the total national injury burden.

“Not only are they still happening often, but they tend to be very significant injuries,” said Mike Lampl, director of research at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

“We’ve seen these trends grow over the years,” said Wayne Maynard, product director, risk control, with Liberty Mutual. “Bottom line is, it’s a real, real big problem.”

So why are preventable falls so hard to prevent? This stubborn status quo, say experts, is that the causes of slips and trips are typically far more complex than they seem. There are nearly always multiple factors in play, from footwear and flooring and the interplay of both, to cleaning procedures, lighting, housekeeping, weather, and workers’ mental or physical conditions as well as overall awareness.

And all of these factors are being exacerbated by the fact that incidents often go unreported.

“Slips, falls — people get up, move on, they don’t report it,” said Maynard.

“When somebody’s injured and files a claim — in the workers’ arena, how many are behind the scenes that may have happened that are not reportable? …. The unreported number is considerable in my opinion.”

The key to making any headway in reducing slips and falls on the same surface, say experts, is to have a comprehensive fall prevention plan that addresses all possible factors. No small task.

Engineering Solutions

Flooring conditions are often the most obvious starting point. Ideally, said Maynard, all the right choices are made at the planning and design stage. But sometimes mistakes are made, and in other cases, a business may be inheriting an older space with floor chosen for a different purpose.

Patricia Showerman, senior loss control consultant, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

So even flooring in good condition may be the wrong type of material and may not have the necessary coefficient of friction (slip resistance) needed for the work being done.

If companies want to drill down into all the details of the surfaces in their facilities, a friction coefficient study is always an option, said Patricia Showerman, senior loss control consultant at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

But if a company doesn’t want to take that step, she said, it may be a simpler matter of saying, “Let’s look at what you’ve got. Let’s look at your floor surfaces and how you’re maintaining them.”

A lot of people want that “shiny grocery store glam look,” she said. “And if you can do it properly, and maintain it properly and keep that coefficient of friction and have the shiny look, that’s great. That’s what everybody wants but how do they get there?”

Certain surfaces may start out with an adequate coefficient of friction when they’re clean and dry. But add even an invisible layer of dust or debris, “and it’s like microscopic little BBs that you slide across,” said Showerman. “So if you have dust on your floor, you are dramatically reducing your slip coefficient.”

For companies that do have flooring surfaces in need of improvement, ripping up the floor and replacing it isn’t typically a feasible option. Fortunately there are more budget-friendly ways to get the maximum slip resistance from existing flooring, such as coatings and etchings.

A coating adds a microscopic layer on top of the flooring that creates a grip surface while maintaining the shine. Showerman likened the effect to the way that Velcro fasteners work.

“You want that hook effect … sharp points are going to microscopically stick into the soles of your shoes, rather than rolling off the top.”

Etching can work in a similar way, chemically altering the existing surface to make it imperceptibly gritty. Etching can also be used to create pores in an existing surface, which is useful for areas such as machine shops, she said.

Be Smart With Surfactants

While keeping floor surfaces clean is one of the best ways to remove slip and fall hazards, cleaning them the wrong way can actually do more harm than good.

Failure to follow appropriate cleaning procedures can severely diminish a surface’s coefficient of friction.

Experts suggest that companies engage with their chemical suppliers, and discuss their flooring as well as the types of dirt or grease removal and disinfectant needs. Detergents – which can contain different types of surfactants — aren’t a one size fits all solution.

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Sometimes purchasers might be inclined to try to cover all their bases by buying the strongest product on the market, but that might mean adding unnecessary surfactants that make surfaces less slip resistant.

“Clearly identify the types of surfaces you’re using it for, the type of oil or dirt or debris you have, and whether or not you need a sanitizing step,” said Showerman.

“You’ve got to find the right balance.”

But that’s only half the battle. A significant problem experts see time and time again is that companies don’t understand how their flooring is being maintained on a day-to-day basis by front-line employees. Failure to follow appropriate cleaning procedures can severely diminish a surface’s coefficient of friction.

“This is where you’re seeing someone with a mop and bucket and they are just re-smearing that grease from one place to another. They put the dirty mop in the dirty bucket, the mop gets full of that emulsified grease and you’re smearing it across the room. In high grease areas, you have to replace with clean water consistently.”

In other cases, a worker without the proper training may grab the first detergent he finds, even if it’s meant for the equipment rather than the floor. Or perhaps he mixes equal parts detergent and water when he was supposed to only use 8 oz. of detergent for every five gallons of water.
Sometimes people will even over-concentrate the detergent on purpose, she added.

Peter Koch, safety management specialist, The MEMIC Group

“I see that in the food industry frequently,” said Showerman. “They find that the more detergent they leave on the floor, the easier it is to clean up next time … but then everyone’s slipping and falling like in a cartoon.”

A company could invest a significant amount in flooring improvements, only to have the benefits undone by improper detergent use or failure to follow recommended rinsing procedures.

It’s incumbent upon safety managers to reinforce that maintaining floor surfaces isn’t just a matter of housekeeping, but a key part of the company’s workplace safety program.

The Human Factor

When you’ve done everything possible to address hazards in the physical work environment, workers themselves remain the wildcard. Most employers routinely include slip and fall hazards in their safety awareness training or toolbox talk programs. But that training should go well beyond a general “watch where you walk” message, say experts.

“One of the most overlooked parts for employee safety is actually employee training,” said Peter Koch, safety management specialist at  The MEMIC Group.

“How do you train an employee to not slip and fall? I think many times that is wrapped in a “you have to be more careful” message, which is valid but nebulous and not very helpful — it means something different to everyone based on your risk tolerance as an individual.”

Koch’s employee training regimen revolves around four elements: surfaces, awareness, footwear and environment (SAFE).

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The first goal of the surface portion is just to get employees to start thinking about the different types of surfaces they walk on and how it can change throughout the work day. Koch said he likes to ask: “How many different types of surfaces did you have to walk on the get to this training room?”

The footwear piece of it is the most straightforward. Are your shoes designed for the work that you’re doing and the surfaces you’re walking on? Are they in good condition? Are the soles worn out?

There is no ASTM standard for measuring the performance of slip-resistant footwear, added Gallagher’s Showerman. So workers should be reminded that wearing the right shoe isn’t a guarantee — it’s just one piece of the solution.

Awareness, said Koch, may be the most challenging piece of the puzzle — helping people to think about their gait, what they’re carrying, what they’re doing, and simply where their heads are at any given moment.

“If you’re thinking about 15 things you have to get done by the end of the day, or you have a particularly challenging employee interaction coming up that day, or you had a fight with your girlfriend last night— or whatever it is — you’re not focused. Then you take that step through the icy patch, and now it relies completely on your athletic ability and luck to stay upright.”

Workers may not necessarily make the connection between personal factors and fall risk. Someone who has an ear infection or is taking certain medications, for example, may not even be aware that their balance might be compromised, putting them at higher risk for a fall.

Employees also should be reminded of how even normal daily stressors can contribute to risk. Everyone is under pressure to deliver more in less time. Everyone is rushing, everyone is stretched to their limits. Add the ever-present cellphone beeping and buzzing and demanding our attention and perhaps it’s a wonder slips and falls don’t happen even more often than they already do.

We’re so conditioned to react when the vibration goes off or the tone chimes in our pockets that we just grab it without thinking, Koch said.

“If you knowingly put yourself at risk by knowingly going quickly through an area with slip and fall exposures, it’s just Russian roulette – at some point you’re going to get broken.” — Peter Koch, safety management specialist, The MEMIC Group.

“Even that, in certain conditions, is going to be enough to put you on the ground.”

Awareness of environmental factors should also be part of the training, Koch said, especially in terms of what workers can’t control, like inclement weather.  He said the main thing he tries to impress upon people is to slow down in a high-risk environment.

“If you knowingly put yourself at risk by knowingly going quickly through an area with slip and fall exposures, it’s just Russian roulette – at some point you’re going to get broken.”

Koch says that getting people to put all of these facets of awareness together is where the training can really click.

The goal is that when they approach an area with a higher-risk surface, employees are thinking “for those few seconds or minutes that I’m going to be walking through it, I need to have a greater sense of awareness, I need to put away the mental [distractions] and focus on what I’m doing – don’t answer your phone, don’t answer your texts.”

Some employers are looking to address the human piece of the slip and fall puzzle by using training that goes far beyond hazard awareness. Active slip-prevention training focuses on body mechanics and teaches workers how to respond when they feel themselves begin to slip.

One such program revolves around the Slip Simulator, technology born of a research partnership between Virginia Tech researchers and UPS. The simulator that creates slippery and hazardous conditions in a controlled environment while participants walk in a harness so they can slip safely. An instructor offers real-time guidance on how to alter their movements to avoid falling.

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After mastering the initial technique, trainees face additional challenges related to their specific work environments, such as walking up ramps or turning wheels. A New Mexico security team practiced drawing firearms while standing on the simulator, which led to a change in how they wear their weapons. Workers at an Ohio refinery practiced stepping over pipes and turning large valves.

Clients of the program are reporting 60 to 80 percent reductions in accident rates.

The Road Ahead

A comprehensive slip and fall prevention plan is a must for employers, experts agreed, with clear, consistent procedures that empower employees to be a part of the solution.

“Employees play a very critical role,” said Liberty Mutual’s Maynard. “If they see a slip risk or a slipperiness issue, they need to be able to report it and they need to be able to get that corrected immediately. They have an important role in maintaining a safe facility and reducing risk themselves — be proactive, don’t walk by, clean it up.

“Any time you can involve the employee in solutions …. the likelihood of success of that intervention is higher.”

Maynard added that the best prevention plans will also be forward-looking.

“Understand where current safety performance is. Then make a roadmap to get better,” he said. “Emphasize where you’re doing well,” then identify opportunities to effect improvement, now and over the next three, four or five years.

“Prevention is too often reactive,” Maynard said. “We’ve got an issue and now what do we do? The goal is for companies to be proactive.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]