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Nuclear plant lifetime extension: A creeping catastrophe via Bellona

 by Charles Digges

Any discussion of nuclear disasters brings events like Chernobyl and Fukushima to mind. But the civilian nuclear industry could be facing a quieter nuclear failure. Simply put, the world’s nuclear reactors are getting dangerously old.

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The majority of the world’s 442 commercially operated reactors were built nearly four decades ago – and that’s all the time they were designed to run. Some of the oldest are located in European area and there’s little hope that newer units will replace them. Private investors view new reactors as a risky prospect. Smart money is gravitating toward alternative forms of energy production like solar and wind.

Given the high costs of building new reactors – costs that run to several billion dollars – many plant operators are leaning into extensions, making them a common – but dangerous – practice.

Early signs of trouble
Ukraine, for instance, currently operates 15 Soviet-era reactors, 12 of which are supposed to retire in 2020. Six of these have already been granted runtime extensions.

In 2016, Mikhail Umanets, the former director of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, spoke up about the practice, warning that the country’s nuclear power plants were becoming more accident-prone.

Data from the Ukraine’s nuclear regulator bears that out. In 2018, the number of accidents recorded at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants reached 22, which was 1.4 times more than were reported in 2017, and 1.8 times more than 2016.

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Runtime extensions coming to a country near you
At present, 90 reactors in the European area are up for a runtime extension within the next eight years – and this should worry us all. Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom all have reactors that are being reviewed for prolonged operation times. Slovakia and Romania will soon follow.

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While most of these are replaceable, the reactor pressure vessel, which houses the core, is not. A rupture in the reactor pressure vessel would lead to that most calamitous of nuclear energy accidents – the meltdown.

During a reactor’s operation, uranium fuel is burned and radiation bombards the steel making up the vessel, causing it to weaken – a process called neutron embrittlement.

The uncertain art of measuring reactor aging
Understanding how this process occurs – as well as other factors that bear on aging ­– is crucial when operators consider lifetime extensions for their reactors.

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But because exposure to neutron fluence in research reactors takes place more quickly than in commercial reactors, these data are unreliable for predicting aging under normal commercial operation.

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