The presidential campaign trail isn’t the only place where being 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 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.
The big picture: Numerous entities — including states, governments and companies — are making ambitious climate goals going out to 2050 without concrete roadmaps.
- The more nuclear 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
What I’m watching: Korsnick says it's likely that the number of U.S. reactors seeking a new longer lease on life could grow "substantially" from its current 20%.