Two recent articles on the idea of extending reactor licenses even further than they already have been (and far further than is reasonable from a public safety perspective), one in the New York Times and one from the U.K., bring the fundamental issue to some light–even if perhaps unintentionally.
In Geriatric nuclear power plants deserve our respect, the U.K.’s Dermot Martin writes, “All round the world the governments and the nuclear industry are facing the fact that they will have to extend the life of existing reactors.”
The context is that it won’t be possible to build new reactors fast enough to replace the old ones, so the lifetime of the old ones must be extended.
But that’s the wrong context. Reactors don’t need to be replaced by reactors. Where their power does need to be replaced (and that isn’t everywhere), it can be replaced by any generating source. That’s a basic fact that the global nuclear industry desperately hopes will be ignored–and is a key factor in ongoing nuclear utility efforts to disparage renewable energy.
That’s the cue for Martin: “To many experts round the world it was obvious the so called green energy technologies such as wind and solar power would never be able to fill the gap.”
In fact, the skyrocketing growth of renewables is putting the lie to the notion that solar and wind can’t fill any electricity-production gap. It’s the nuclear industry that can’t build fast enough (nor economically enough) to fill the gap–not renewables.
Last Sunday, with several reactors down and a fire disabling a major gas plant, the UK suddenly realized the value of wind power–it alone provided 24% of the nation’s power that day, a new record. Yet the UK’s government continues to press ahead with extraordinarily expensive and downright silly new nuclear projects like the Hinkley Point reactor proposal–projects that will, as all reactor construction projects eventually do–go over-budget, be behind-schedule, and may never be completed at all.
In the UK, however, the national government still controls a lot of decision-making over power needs. The situation is very different in the deregulated portions of the U.S.
By failing to plan ahead and recognize that their reactors will have to be retired, the nuclear-dominated utilities now have to pin their hopes on convincing federal and state regulators that there is no alternative to keeping the lights on. The reactors must continue to operate, no matter the cost to ratepayers.
Of course, there is also an added benefit to the utilities if they can win that argument: as one industry official told the New York Times, “If you’ve effectively paid off the plant, this is very cheap power,” said Neil Wilmshurst, a nuclear engineer at the Electric Power Research Institute. In other words, the reactors could go from being liabilities to cash cows.
The first problem for the utilities is competition. Any power from a closed reactor that does need to be replaced doesn’t, in fact, need to be replaced by the utility that closed the reactor. It can just as easily be replaced by a competitor, and in this case, the competitors are likely to be installing renewable energy sources that are both cheaper and cleaner than the old reactors. Indeed, it is primarily renewable energy (but also dirty fracked gas, depending on location) that have made so many of the older reactors uneconomic even before another license extension.
The second problem is safety. Most U.S. reactors already have received one 20-year license extension, allowing them to operate for 60 years. Yet no commercial reactor in the world has yet operated 60 years; there is only conjecture about whether they’ll last even that long. Only a handful of reactors globally even have reached 40 years yet. Even so, faced with their failure to plan ahead, nuclear utilities are now pushing the NRC to allow a second 20-year license extension, for an 80-year life.
Given that reactor designs pre-date their actual construction by a good decade or more, an 80-year license would mean that by the end of the license period, the reactor design itself could be a full century old.
As former NRC Commissioner, and rarely a critic of the nuclear industry, George Apostolakis is quoted in the Times,
“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.
That question would have an even greater import if it has to be asked again in 2064.
It’s not exactly comforting that the Times reports that the first seven reactors interested in an 80-year license are Exelon’s Peach Bottom, Dominion’s Surry, and Duke’s Oconee. Peach Bottom consists of two Fukushima-clone GE Mark I reactors, while Oconee is a three-unit clone of Three Mile Island. Clearly the nuclear utilities are playing with the Gods….
By not planning ahead when they could have, by not moving to clean energy when they could have, the nuclear-dominated utilities have backed themselves into a corner. Their argument is down to: ‘we have these reactors, help us keep them operating at whatever cost even past their design lifetime,’ when the real question regulators must address is: how can we provide the cheapest, cleanest electricity possible?
Actually, when the competitive marketplaces that exist in most of the country were set up more than a decade ago, it wasn’t to ensure that the cleanest energy sources would prevail, they were set up so that the cheapest energy sources would prevail. That the two–cheap and clean–would turn out to go hand-in-hand a dozen or so years later has come as a welcome surprise to all but those who bet all their chips on nuclear and coal.
The answer to that fundamental question for regulators (and politicians, for that matter), if answered honestly and transparently, is not very often going to be by keeping old, uneconomic reactors operating. That’s bad news for the nuclear lobby, but good news for its growing legion of capable competitors.
A version of this article appeared in GreenWorld on October 21, 2014.