Nuclear power plants seem to draw a special level of animosity even beyond that of conventional power sources that emit greenhouse gases. Perhaps because of the raw capabilities of the plants, nuclear power has been a hot button issue for decades. Today, as many of the U.S. and European nuclear power plants reach the thirty-year mark, there is a growing discussion about their overall safety. Unfortunately, much of that debate is misguided.
The real issue for the viability of new nuclear power plants is whether or not it is cost effective. But given the relatively modest operational and decommissioning costs - decommissioning older nuclear power plants generally adds 0.1 to 0.2 cents per kwh, while fuel costs contribute just 0.5 cents per kwh – the economic hurdle largely boils down to the massive upfront cost of construction, which translates into high costs for financing. Related: Germany’s Nuclear Cutback Is Darkening European Skies
Nevertheless, once built, older nuclear power plants can operate safely for decades. Nuclear critics like to cite the Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima disasters as evidence that nuclear power is not safe, especially when generated by older plants. But the truth of the matter is that both disasters were caused by very special circumstances. Chernobyl was a result of a combination of human error and poor engineering brought to the public by the same regime that created perhaps the world’s least reliable automobile. Fukushima was the result of a tsunami. While these examples might support the view that earthquake prone regions and countries with weak track records of successful technological progress should not operate nuclear power plants, neither example is really relevant to the debate over the aging of nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power plant age by itself does not really matter. Nuclear power plants were given a forty-year operating license initially because that is the maximum possible length allowed by U.S. nuclear regulators, not because of any inherent time limits on engineering. Instead what actually matters in nuclear plant safety is the material condition of the plant. Related: How China Could Hold The Oil Markets To Ransom
Nuclear fission results in a process called “embrittlement,” which affects any materials inside the reactor. This is especially true of the containment vessels in nuclear reactors which deteriorate over time.
The degree of embrittlement should be the ultimate barometer for the health of the plant, and as a result, how and when plants should be shuttered. There are ways to test for embrittlement . Embrittlement is not a direct function of plant age though. It is determined by the type of materials used, the operational conditions, as well as repairs made over time. Plant age itself no more drives nuclear power plant safety than car age drives the likelihood of getting a flat tire. Instead, what matters is how the car has been driven and how recently the tires have been replaced. Related: A Spanner In The Works Of The Solar Revolution
This does not mean that nuclear power plants can be used forever, and indeed old plants are decommissioned once the cost of maintenance no longer makes sense . Nuclear power can present dangers if risks are not accounted for and mitigated, just as airplanes can be dangerous under certain circumstances. Yet, most major airlines are flying planes that are twenty to thirty years old. Why is that safe? Because industrial equipment can operate almost indefinitely if it is closely monitored and properly maintained. That should be the real determinant for how long nuclear reactors are allowed to operate.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
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