Many of the nation’s nuclear power plants don’t have enough cash set aside to close down safely, according to a wire report late last week. And a hastily closed plant could result in such ills as water contamination and theft of nuclear materials.

Taking a nuclear reactor off-line costs about $450 million, which includes storing fuel and dismantling the plant, among other expenses, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. But as funds have flowed out of companies’ investments during the recession, the amount of money earmarked for safe dismantling has also diminished.

About a third of the country’s plants have been asked by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for plans on how to make up for fiscal shortcomings.

“This is not a current safety issue,” Tim McGinty, NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation policy and rulemaking director, said in a statement. “But the plants do have to prove to us they’re setting aside money appropriately.”

Some industry insiders go even further. “No one at the NRC wants to acknowledge what is absolutely obvious to us,” a retired nuclear engineer told the AP. “The funds are inadequate and the industry has bare assets.”

How will companies generate the cash to close plants? Keep pumping out the power.

Twenty-year extensions on operating licenses have already been granted to more than half of the U.S.’s 104 nuclear plants, the AP reports, and another 16 are currently under review. In addition to hoping for better market performance to up their assets, the companies will likely pass costs on to customers in the form of small surcharges.

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