Nuclear Power Taking Its Hits

by Bill Chameides | May 1st, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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The safety of the United States’ aging fleet of nuclear power plants questioned.

Time was, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, nuclear power was going to be our energy panacea — an abundant source of clean energy as far as the eye could see. Starting in 1967, the United States built nuclear power plants in rapid succession, going from no commercial plants to more than 100 plants in the course of about 20 years. In 2011, 104 commercial nuclear reactors generated just under 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

A Short History of U.S. Nuclear Power

But in the mid-70s rising construction costs dampened construction rates, and then in 1979 the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island appeared to cast a huge shadow of doubt on the safety of nuclear power. Post-1979, while nuclear plants that were in the pipeline continued to be built through the 1990s, not a single new construction permit has been issued … until last year. (More in this post.)

In the early part of the 2000s advocates began predicting a nuclear renaissance. One argument in favor of such a renaissance, proponents pointed out, was environmental — we needed a source of inexpensive, low-carbon energy and nuclear was an obvious solution. Of course there were environmentalists on the other side of that argument who saw nuclear power as, almost literally, a time bomb waiting to explode. Other arguments were made that the environmental arguments were irrelevant because new nuclear power doesn’t make sense economically. (See here and here.)

Nuclear Power Today: Stuck on 104

In recent years Congress has generally bought the pro-nuclear argument and taken steps to get the nuclear ball rolling again. For example the Energy Policy Act of 2005 updated and extended the Price-Anderson Act which limits the liability to nuclear operators in the case of an accident and provides loan guarantees and production tax credits for building new commercial reactors. And if Obama has his way, as outlined in his 2014 budget blueprint [pdf], nuclear power, most notably in the form of small modular reactors, will get a boost.

The Congressional helping-hand to the nuclear industry has borne some fruit as there are now a few new additional “reactors in various stages of permitting, planning, and construction.” But recent events have not been kind to the nuclear industry. On the safety side there was the 2011 accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which has turned into an ongoing saga at the now crippled plant — from leaking contaminated water (see here and here) to dangerous rat attacks. And on the economic side, increasing resources of oil and natural gas — thanks to fracking technology (see here and here) — are helping to make nuclear power less profitable.

And so it would appear that the real action in U.S. nuclear power will remain with the same 104 power plants that have been with us for decades.

The 40-Year Catch and the 80-Year Hope

The catch: the current fleet was initially licensed to operate for 40 years. And many have outlasted that 40-year period and others are rapidly approaching that threshold. To keep the fleet alive, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been routinely granting 20-year extensions on those licenses. At the end of 2012, 72 of the original 104 had been granted a 20-year extension. And “currently, the NRC is reviewing license renewal applications for 13 reactors, and 15 more applications for license renewals are expected between 2013 and 2019,” according to the Energy Information Administration.

With these extended licenses, each plant gets an additional 20-year lease on life, meaning that it could be operated for a total of 60 years. But 60 years is not nearly enough for some in the nuclear industry; a 2010 survey of plant operators found that many expect to keep their plants in operation for 80 years.

There’s Always a Party Pooper

Wow, despite it all the setbacks, it looks like nuclear proponents can at least take solace in the fact that we can have 104 existing plants continuously splitting atoms and generating profitable electricity for 80 years, perhaps even more.

Not so fast says Gregory B. Jaczko. At a recent conference on nuclear power, Jaczko questioned the safety of the existing fleet of U.S. nuclear power plants (see also here). As the New York Times put it, his remarks indicated that “all 104 nuclear power reactors now in operation in the United States have a safety problem that cannot be fixed and they should be replaced by newer technology.” Jaczko also predicted that many of the reactors would not even make it to the end of their 20-year extensions, let alone chug along another 40.

If you’re a proponent of nuclear energy, Jaczko’s claims are most definitely not welcome. Fortunately, the nuclear industry has disputed them: “U.S. nuclear energy facilities are operating safely,” said Michael Fertel, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

OK, so Fertel represents the nuclear industry and so is perhaps not quite objective. But look, no one has died as a direct result of a nuclear accident in the United States and who is this guy Jaczkoa anyway and why should we listen to him?

Maybe because he is the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?



End Notes

* About 20 plants have been shut down and at least two more are slated for closure: Kewaunee Power Plant in Wisconsin and Crystal River in Florida. The fate of the beleaguered Indian Point nuclear reactor just 40 miles north of Manhattan is as yet unknown, but there are calls for it to be shuttered when its current license expires.

Late breaking news: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission puts a roadblock in the way of the licensing for two reactors proposed by the South Texas Project — the applicant has foreign ownership issues.

filed under: energy, faculty, nuclear power, policy, politics

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