The nuclear industry in the United States has been at a standstill for several decades. After an extraordinary wave of construction in the 1960s and 1970s, the nuclear industry ground to a halt. A confluence of events killed off new construction, including high interest rates, cost overruns, delays, and the Three Mile Island incident that scared the public and turned it against nuclear power.
But despite the nuclear industry’s inability to build more than a handful of new nuclear power plants since the 1980s, nuclear power still accounts for about 19 percent of electricity generation in the United States, the third largest source of electricity behind coal and natural gas.
Yet the nation’s 99 reactors are mostly nearing their retirement age. Having originally been planned for 40-year lifespans, many of the reactors would have already been forced to shut down by now, with nearly all of the rest hitting their limits at some point within the next decade. Instead, more than three-quarters of them have already received a 20-year extension, putting off their retirements until the 2030s.
But in the nuclear sector, where everything takes a long time, the 2030s are rapidly approaching. With one-fifth of the country’s electricity fleet nearing retirement, and very few nuclear power plants under construction to replace what is expected to be lost, how will the U.S. cope with the lost capacity?
“Four reactors are being built, but there’s absolutely no money and no desire to finance more plants than that. So in 20 or 30 years we’re going to have very few nuclear power plants in this country—that’s just a fact,” the former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, said in a 2013 interview.
To remedy the situation, power plant owners are simply proposing another 20-year extension, according to CNBC. If that were to happen, that would mean that many of the nation’s 99 reactors could operate for 80 years, 40 years longer than originally planned.
Discussions of an 80-year lifespan have been going on for years, but CNBC reports that utilities are going to publicly unveil a push as soon as this summer to formally request a second 20-year extension to 80 years. The first candidates to get pushed to 80 years could be “Dominion Resources' Surry Plant in Virginia; Exelon's Peach Bottom plant near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border and Duke Energy's Oconee plant in South Carolina,” CNBC reported on July 16.
The nuclear industry argues that achieving dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with President Obama’s climate plan would only be achievable with low-carbon nuclear power. Wind and solar are making significant progress, sure, but can the U.S. achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 without nuclear power? Nuclear offers large-scale baseload clean electricity, the industry argues, while the wind and sun are not always available.
The industry also argues that there is nothing inherently unsafe about operating plants to 80 years. According to a 2013 report from the American Physical Society, there are “no technical show stoppers to running some plants for 80 years.”
And there was nothing technically special about the original 40-year license. That timeframe was not chosen because plants were expected to become unsafe beyond that date, nuclear operators say. That timeframe was chosen more because of investment timeframes.
And when compared to carbon-spewing coal and natural gas plants, as well as the quickly approaching expiration of much of the nuclear fleet, APS concludes that looking at extending nuclear plants to 80 years is “both complex and urgent.”
Others are not so sure. “This is not a future technology. It’s an old technology, and it serves a useful purpose. But that purpose is running its course,” former NRC Chairman Jackzo said in 2013.
Operating nuclear reactors for 80 years may be feasible, but wear and tear cannot only raise safety questions, but constant maintenance can make them economically unviable. Cracks can form in plants as they age, forcing the plant offline. The cost of repairs have already forced some power plants offline for good. The San Onofre plant in California, for example, was shut down by Southern California Edison after the bill to repair leaks ballooned. Duke Energy closed a reactor at its Crystal River power plant in Florida as repair costs got out of hand.
Such incidents could be more frequent in the years ahead. But if the industry gets its way, some plants could operate well beyond their current 60-year licenses.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com
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