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July 2, 2018

Could a Renaissance Be in Store for Existing Nuclear Plants?

July 2, 2018
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Nuclear plants were originally issued 40-year operating licenses by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Most utilities had applied for 20-year renewals for their nuclear units, and have operated them for 50 to 60 years. Many utilities are now considering applying for a second renewal and four plants have begun that decade-long process. The initial operating license for nuclear units was issued for 40 years because it was believed that nuclear plants would last 40 to 50 years. But, they, like coal plants, have operated for much longer, providing reliable and relatively inexpensive electricity.

Duke Energy, for instance, has maintained its nuclear units, continually replacing critical equipment.  At the Brunswick plant in Southport, Duke completed a refueling outage earlier this year, installed new turbine controls and upgraded the plant’s diesel generators that keep the facility operational during emergencies. The licenses for the two reactors at the Brunswick plant expire in 2034 and 2036 and are candidates for a second renewal.

Duke’s 11 reactors at six locations in North and South Carolina generate over 56 percent of the power in those two states. To relicense these 11 reactors is less expensive than building a new plant, despite the costs associated with the equipment upgrades and replacements required for relicensing.

The main factor limiting how long a plant could be operational is the reactor vessel, which could become brittle because of the nuclear activity taking place inside it. In most units, however, the lifetime of the reactor vessel is much greater than 80 years.

To keep these units operating for 20 more years will require that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission amends its onerous regulatory policies that caused cost increases and slowed the deployment of nuclear power.

The Nuclear Future That Wasn’t

According to Australian National University researcher Peter Lang, in the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear power transitioned from a technology with rapidly falling costs and accelerating deployment to rapidly rising costs and stalled deployment. If nuclear power had continued with its original costs and deployment, its costs would be around 10 percent of its current cost. And if that were the case, nuclear power would have replaced all coal-burning and three-quarters of gas-fired electric power generation by 2015, substituting for 186,000 terawatt-hours of electricity production over the past 30 years and lowering carbon dioxide emissions substantially. Cumulative global carbon dioxide emissions would be about 18 percent lower and annual global carbon dioxide emissions would be one-third less.

For example, the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, which opened in 1969, cost $594 million (in 2017 dollars) and took four years to build. That compares to the Watts Bar nuclear unit in Tennessee, which opened in 2016, and cost $7 billion and took over 10 years to build.

The change resulted from the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which established the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to focus on safety. The result was construction times increased from four to 14 years, and orders for new nuclear reactors slowed with almost 60 reactors being scrapped.

Further, onerous regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has resulted in the premature retirement of existing nuclear units and the announcement of many more retirements. Since 2013, six nuclear plants have closed in Florida, Wisconsin, California, Vermont, and Nebraska due to competition from inexpensive natural gas and environmental opposition. Eleven more nuclear plants, including Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island and California’s Diablo Canyon, have announced that they will close between now and 2025, even though they could  operate for decades.

Source: New York Times 

In 2018, American power generators are expected to retire at least 15.4 gigawatts of coal-fired and 550 megawatts of nuclear plant capacity. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, two dozen nuclear plants (about 33 gigawatts) are either scheduled to be retired or will lose money by 2021. When an existing nuclear reactor is retired, it cannot be reopened later, as decommissioning the plant starts immediately.

The 680 megawatt Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts is slated to retire next year. When it does, it will remove more zero carbon dioxide electricity production than all the wind turbines and solar panels that the state added over the last 20 years. And, any new renewable energy technology (e.g. offshore wind) will just fill a portion of the hole made by Pilgrim’s closure. Some states, such as Illinois, New York and New Jersey, have taken steps to keep some of their nuclear reactors operating.

New York decided to subsidize three upstate nuclear plants. (Indian Point, a large plant near New York City is still slated to close by 2021.) Illinois’s legislature passed a bill that created “zero emissions credits” to help two of Exelon’s financially troubled nuclear plants stay open. New Jersey passed a bill with a $300 million annual subsidy to three of the state’s nuclear power plants, which provide the state with about 40 percent of its electricity. (New Jersey’s Oyster Creek nuclear reactor is still expected to close.)

Policy makers in Ohio and Pennsylvania are evaluating policies to keep their nuclear reactors operating. Besides emissions reductions, considerations include jobs lost due to the closures; becoming overly dependent on natural gas, which has a history of price volatility; established reliability; and fuel diversity.

Proponents of subsidizing nuclear plants argue that energy markets do not properly value the low-carbon benefits that nuclear reactors provide while wind and solar power are subsidized by state renewable mandates and federal tax credits. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, over the past 20 years, the share of non-carbon power generation has fallen slightly, as the growth in renewables has been offset by a loss of nuclear power generation.


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should allow utilities that maintain rigorous, ongoing preventive maintenance programs across their nuclear fleet and have completed upgrades and investments during their reactors’ operating life, to relicense their units. The capital costs of these plants have already been paid for by consumers, and if they are safe to operate, they should be allowed to continue. In the past, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has placed such long time delays on reactors such as the San Onofre units in California that the utilities had chosen to retire their units because they could not afford to keep their nuclear units operating at low levels and purchase other power to meet demand.

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