U.S. nuclear reactors may now have a life expectancy greater than most people. Whenever American power plants are built, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is able to grant operating licenses for a period of 40 years. However, the U.S. is now set to test whether it’s safe to operate nuclear power plants for 80 years — twice as long as initially allowed and slightly longer than the average American lifespan.[1,2]
Nearly all nuclear reactors in the country will be 60 years old by 2050. Most of the United States’ nuclear reactors have been granted 20-year extensions to their original 40-year operating licenses. Nevertheless, officials from Dominion Resources still want an additional 20 years on top of their recently granted extension, thereby allowing the power plants to operate for 80 years.
Nothing is immune to the wear and tear of time, including nuclear reactors. Requests to extend the lifespan of power plants throughout the states have provoked safety concerns among anti-nuclear campaigners. Critics note that pushing power plants beyond their intended life expectancy increases the risk of a nuclear debacle like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Nuclear industry wanes in wake of natural gas boom
None of the world’s nuclear reactors have operated for as long as 80 years. The nuclear industry has been subject to an economic tribulation in recent years with expensive operating costs, hefty safety upgrades and competition with natural gas. Expanding the window of time which U.S. power plants are allowed to operate may determine whether the nuclear industry is in its twilight.
If the NRC approves the requested extensions, it could serve as a blueprint for how other countries would operate their plants:
“We are at the forefront,” Tina Taylor, director at the Electric Power Research Institute Inc., told sources. “As we demonstrate extending the licenses of plants and continue operating them, it sets a model for how people will do that around the world.”
Allowing reactors to operate for 80 years is unprecedented in more ways than one. If permitted, Dominion’s Surry plant in Virginia will be the first reactor to outlive the life expectancy of the average American citizen, which currently is at 78.8 years.
An unprecedented request
The reason the nuclear industry is requesting an extension for its U.S. reactors is because they cannot compete with natural gas in the marketplace. They are reaching their intended retirement age and being shut down at a rapid rate. Approximately 10 percent of U.S. nuclear reactors may quit working sooner than expected. Five reactors have turned off their lights in the last three years and three more are expected to shut down by 2019.
“There are a number of safety issues with pushing these technologies twice beyond their original projected life span,” reports Tyson Slocum, Washington-based director of energy at Public Citizen. “You’ve seen a number of issues from Davis-Besse to Vermont Yankee where aging components triggered a variety of leaks.”
FirstEnergy Corporation, a diversified energy company headquartered in Ohio, discovered corrosion seeped through one of its steel reactor caps back in March 2002. Entergy Corporation also found radioactive leaks in pipes at its Vermont Yankee plant in January 2010. The industry and NRC claim neither of the incidents posed a public health risk.
Turning off reactors easier said than done
Turning off a nuclear reactor isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. There are many questions pertaining to the longevity of certain nuclear reactor parts, like concrete and electrical tables. Furthermore, officials are still unsure where to store the remaining nuclear fuel. At present, most nuclear fuel is harbored on site in temporary cooling pools and dry casks.
Some people have suggested storing the nuclear waste underground. However, storing and managing the nuclear waste in underground facilities would cost millions of dollars. Additionally, none of these facilities would be immune to leaks, as well.
No nuclear power plant has lasted for 80 years — at least, none so far. Studies show a severe nuclear accident is likely to occur every 10 to 20 years. If the NRC allows reactors to operate for 80 years, the U.S. will have upped its chances of having a Fukushima-like disaster in the years to come.