The prospects for building new nuclear reactors may be sharply limited, but the owners of seven old ones, in Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina, are preparing to ask for permission to run them until they are 80 years old.
Nuclear proponents say that extending plants’ lifetimes is more economical — and a better way to hold down carbon dioxide emissions — than building new plants, although it will require extensive monitoring of steel, concrete, cable insulation and other components. But the idea is striking even to some members of the nuclear establishment.
At a meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in May, George Apostolakis, a risk expert who was then one of the five commissioners, pointed out that if operation were allowed until age 80, some reactors would be using designs substantially older than that.
“I don’t know how we would explain to the public that these designs, 90-year-old designs, 100-year-old designs, are still safe to operate,” he said. “Don’t we need more convincing arguments than just ‘We’re managing aging effects’?”
“I mean, will you buy a car that was designed in ’64?” he asked.
The 100 operating power reactors, most of them completed by the late 1980s, were licensed for 40 years. In that era, new generating stations were expected to replace old ones within a few decades, but that turned out to be wrong for nuclear plants and coal-fired power stations as well. The nuclear industry now describes that 40-year period as an early estimate of the plants’ economic life, not physical viability.
As construction of new reactors tailed off to nearly nothing in the late 1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission established a procedure in 1991 for 20-year license extensions, and it has now granted more than 70. Thus far it has not rejected any applications, although many are still under review.
Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace, said: “This isn’t about running reactors until they are 80. It’s amortizing the large capital additions that the industry can’t afford right now.” The reactors, he noted, have been required to buy new hardware after the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011.
“The track record of this industry is a meltdown once a decade,” he said. “We have a concern that running reactors well beyond their economic lifetime and well into embrittlement is not sound.”