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By Rebecca Kern
June 17 — The key factor for the aging U.S. nuclear fleet to operate safely out to 80 years is to ensure plants have strong plans to maintain and replace older equipment, nuclear industry and safety advocates say.
As the oldest nuclear plants in the U.S. approach the end of their 60-year operating licenses in 2029, what remains in question is whether the majority of them will decide the benefits of keeping their plants open outweigh associated maintenance and regulatory costs.
U.S. nuclear power plants are among the oldest in the world. The U.S., Switzerland and India all have reactors that went online in 1969, making them 47 years old. With states working to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, extending operating licenses for carbon-free nuclear plants could play an increasingly important role to meet these targets.
Approximately 20 nuclear plants, out of the 61 plants in the U.S., have said they are beginning to plan for second license renewal with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to a May 2016 survey conducted by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry trade association.
Exelon Corp. and Dominion Resources Inc. are the first two nuclear operators that have announced they plan to submit a second, 20-year license renewal application with the NRC to keep plants operating for up to 80 years. Exelon plans to submit its application in 2018 for its Peach Bottom plant, and Dominion in 2019 for its Surry plant.
“License renewal is basically continuing the close scrutiny and the close maintenance that we've done on all of our plants. When you continue on, you are maintaining that plant to the same level of safety, or better, that you had when it was first built,” Jason Remer, NEI's director of plant license extension, told Bloomberg BNA.Two Expected Second License Applications
For nuclear plants to continue operating from 60 to 80 years, operators must assess whether the plants are safe to operate another 20 years and whether keeping them open is economically justified.
Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project, an environmental nonprofit organization, told Bloomberg BNA that it isn't impossible for plants to operate for up to 80 years. They just need to ensure the equipment is maintained and replace properly in frequent intervals.
“There are many owners that make those decisions about what needs to be replaced and when, and they can operate economically,” he said. “There's nothing magic about 65 or 70 years. If you're doing those replacements and those refurbishments when you need to, you'll have safety margins all the way out to 80 years.”
As part of the license renewal process, each nuclear operator has to submit a plant-specific aging management program to the NRC. The agency will evaluate the plan to grant or deny a license extension.
The nuclear industry says it is continually assessing its equipment to upgrade when necessary to ensure safe operation.
“We are constantly improving,” NEI's Remer said. “Even though we don't have to improve according to the regulations, we are improving by putting newer and more modern equipment in our facilities. As far as safety, you're actually improving safety.”
“Any time you see anything that's out of alignment or out of the normal specifications, you take corrective actions, including if it's not safe you shut it down,” he said. He also noted that there are at least two resident NRC inspectors at every nuclear plant in the U.S. who help monitor the plants' safe operation.
But ultimately, Lochbaum said, “the nuclear operator is a business. They want to make money. So as long as they're doing that, then the [nuclear plants] will run for 80 years. But if things change so that it costs more to run the plant than they can make, then that won't work.”
NRC Commissioner William Ostendorff said that there are four main technical areas of concern that the NRC wants to see in the aging management plan for a second license renewal from 60 to 80 years.
The first technical area is how the plant deals with neutron radiation impacting the stainless steel metal of a reactor vessel, which contains the radioactive materials. Over time radiation can degrade the metal. The remaining technical areas concern how the plant deals with the degradation of buried piping, buried electrical cables and concrete structures.
“We would expect that the licensee would have a detailed aging management program in place,” Ostendorff told Bloomberg BNA.
In fact, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an independent nonprofit organization that does electricity sector research, has been researching equipment and materials degradation of nuclear plants since 2009 through its Long-Term Operations Program.
Currently, EPRI is doing research, along with the Energy Department's Light Water Reactor Sustainability Project, on the long-term impacts of temperature, radiation and environmental factors on metals, cables and concrete structures at nuclear plants. U.S. nuclear operators are members of the nuclear research program through EPRI.
“Everything leads to safety. That's the most important thing at the end of the day—can you understand, inspect, evaluate and, as needed, repair to maintain your margins of safety,” Sherry Bernhoft, EPRI's senior program manager of strategic programs, told Bloomberg BNA.
However, this is a very involved and expensive process. Of the 100 nuclear reactors, 81 have completed their first license renewal, which adds 20 years to their initial 40-year operating license to take them out to 60 years.
Exelon's second license application will be submitted 15 and 16 years before its Peach Bottom Unit 2 and Unit 3 reactors' current licenses are set to expire.
Marshall Murphy, an Exelon spokesman, said the reason for the early application process is because it involves “a rigorous, multi-year procedure that includes comprehensive design reviews and inspections.”
On average, the first license renewal costs industry $15 million to $25 million for the thousands of pages of documentation and NRC application fee, John Keeley, an NEI spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA. The NRC estimates it takes 22 to 30 months to review the license renewal applications. However, NEI expects a second license renewal to take less time to review—approximately 18 months.
NEI's Remer said NEI predicts the second license renewal process could be faster than first license renewal and therefore cheaper for the industry because companies will be able to apply lessons learned from the first license renewal process, and therefore be more efficient.
While the NRC has decided it won't change its license renewal regulatory requirements for the second license renewal process from 60 to 80 years, it is developing a “Generic Aging Lessons Learned for Subsequent License Renewal” report to provide guidance to all nuclear plants seeking a second renewal. It also is preparing a guidance for NRC staff on second license renewals. NRC says it expects to finalize both guidance documents by July 2017.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is working closely with the NRC to provide feedback on the guidance documents.
Dominion did not respond to Bloomberg BNA's request for comments related to its expected license renewal.
With more nuclear plants announcing early retirements due to inability to compete against low natural gas prices, critics say it is too early to know whether the majority of nuclear plants will be financially sound enough to be able to reach 60 years of operation, let alone 80.
As of late June, three nuclear operators announced they are planning to close six nuclear plants by 2019 due to economic factors. Exelon announced it plans to close three plants, Entergy has announced two plant closures, and on June 15 the Omaha Public Power District announced plans to shut down one of Nebraska's two nuclear plants.
While NRC only requires a nuclear operator to notify the agency of a license renewal five year before expiration, Exelon and Dominion's planned applications will come between 13 and 16 years before their licenses expire.
Tim Judson, the executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a group that provides information about radioactive waste and generally takes a stance against nuclear power plants, said he thinks these second license renewal announcements are coming too soon given the unpredictable economic conditions facing nuclear plants.
Judson told Bloomberg BNA that these expected renewals “seem like a massive waste of time and money.”
“It's not even well grounded in reality. The notion that these plants are going to be economically viable or even technology viable or safe to operate at 60 years is a completely unproven concept,” he said.
He noted, for example, that one of the oldest reactors in the U.S.—Exelon's Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey—is scheduled to close in 2019.
“The idea that Exelon and Dominion are going to waste the taxpayers' and rate payers' money with these premature 60- to 80-year license extensions seems unrealistic. I don't think they even have a realistic prospect of operating those plants until 60 years, much less beyond,” he said.
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