Dec 16, 2019 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Is 80 years just a number? Maybe for America’s aging nuclear plants

Illustration of a melting birthday cake in the shape of a nuclear tower with too many candles on top

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The presidential campaign trail isn’t the only place where 80 years old is becoming more common.

Driving the news: Operators of up to 20% of America’s nuclear reactors are seeking federal approval to run reactors for an unprecedented 80 years. The trend helps combat climate change — but it's also raising serious safety concerns.

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent federal body, approved the first application seeking such an extension.

  • The agency renewed the operating licenses of two reactors near Miami from 60 years to 80. Because this was done more than a decade before existing licenses expire, the reactors will now run until a few years after 2050.

Where it stands: America has just under 100 reactors at roughly 60 power plants, which provide the country with nearly 20% of its electricity — but more than half of the carbon-free kind.

  • The average age of those reactors is about 40 years old, but up to one-third could be taken offline in the next few years before their licenses expire due to economic stress.
  • Because of those struggles and because virtually no companies are building new large-scale nuclear plants, these 80-year extensions are critical to the industry’s survival in the coming decades.
  • These approvals would make these reactors just a couple of years older than the three top Democratic presidential candidates.

The backstory: Duke Energy, one of the U.S.’s largest utilities, announced in September that it will seek to renew operating licenses for all 11 reactors at its six nuclear plants out to 80 years.

  • A key factor in its decision was the utility’s ambitious climate-change goals: cut emissions by at least half in the next 10 years and then reach zero by 2050.
  • Nuclear power makes up a third of Duke’s generation output, but nearly all of its carbon-free kind.

The big picture: Duke is just one of numerous entities — including states, governments and other companies — making ambitious climate goals going out to 2050 without concrete roadmaps. 2050 is a common benchmark used to judge progress on climate change, but it seems far off when most decisions are made on far smaller time horizons.

  • One thing is certain: the more nuclear power plants shut down between now and then, the harder it will be to achieve the already herculean task of cutting carbon emissions over the next 30 years.
  • That’s the main reason why Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, one of the few environmental groups backing nuclear power, is supporting 80-year-old reactors.
“The issue here is not whether you think nuclear power is likely to be a big player in the second half of the century for a zero-carbon energy system. If we have better technologies for the second half, that’s great. But keeping emissions as low as possible during the transition is going to be brutal.”
— Armond Cohen, Clean Air Task Force

But, but, but: Other environmental groups advocating for aggressive action on climate change are nonetheless concerned about — and sometimes outright opposing — reactors operating 80 years.

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth are appealing the NRC’s recent approval, citing what they’re saying is a rushed review process and the risk that rising sea levels could pose to the coastal reactors in Florida.
  • Given that the country remains divided over whether — and where — to create a long-term repository for nuclear’s radioactive waste, this extension and others will also add to the waste stored on site. (NRC says it’s safe.)
  • NRDC isn’t officially opposing other reactors seeking extensions (yet), though Geoffrey Fettus, a senior lawyer with the group’s nuclear program, has broad concerns.
“You’re looking at 40- and 60-year-old technology that needs to operate safely and if it doesn’t operate safely everyone has a bad day. We think if there is a consideration of extending the lives of these reactors to 80 years it needs to receive hyper scrutiny.”
— Geoffrey Fettus, Natural Resources Defense Council

The other side: Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, says reactors were initially licensed to 40 years because of economic — not technical — reasons, so there’s nothing technically stopping these plants from continuing to operate.

  • She said an appropriate comparison for a reactor is how people decide to renovate their homes versus buying a new one. Many parts of a home can be renovated to keep 80- or even 100-year-old houses functioning well.
  • As for the Florida approval, Korsnick said those reactors are designed to withstand storm surges of multiple feet, so gradual sea level rise measured in inches isn’t a problem.

What I’m watching: I started off by saying 20% of America’s reactors are seeking a new lease on life out to 80 years, but Korsnick says there’s likely more to come, so that percentage could grow substantially.

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