Nuclear Relicensing: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

The U.S. nuclear industry is going in two different directions: Some plants are shutting down with years left on their operating licenses, while others contemplate the implications of 80-year lifetimes. Here’s a snapshot of where the nation’s fleet is headed.

There is perhaps no industry in the U.S. experiencing a greater range of fortunes than nuclear power.

Across much of the country, nuclear plants that must compete in deregulated markets are often economically challenged. Two reactors have shut down for purely economic reasons; three more have been set for retirement within the next five years. Three reactors have been shut down after botched outages left the plants too expensive to repair. Several others have flirted with retirement only to be saved by last-minute lifelines. For these plants, license expiration dates decades hence are of little solace.

Yet in traditional regulated markets, nuclear is looking at a bright future. Five reactors are under construction—one of which is preparing to start up in early 2016—while another has announced plans to seek an unprecedented second license extension that would push its lifetime out to 80 years.

Moving Forward, Moving Back

The nation currently has 99 operating reactors (Table 1). Of these, three—FitzPatrick, Oyster Creek, and Pilgrim—have announced retirement dates. All three still have more than a decade left on their operating licenses.

nuclear relicensing

Table 1. Licensed nuclear reactors in the U.S., including those planned, under construction, and recently retired. Comanche Peak and Watts Bar 1 have not announced renewal intentions. The two Surry units plan to submit second renewal applications in 2019. Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Of the 96 still-viable reactors, 76 have received 20-year extensions on their original licenses. The remaining 20 include 13 reactors that have filed for extensions and four that have notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that they plan to file. Two plants, the two-unit Comanche Peak and Watts Bar 1, have not yet formally announced intentions on renewal.

In several cases, such as Diablo Canyon and Indian Point, these renewal applications are highly controversial and are facing substantial opposition from local authorities and environmental groups. Expiration dates range from Indian Point Unit 2, which expired in 2013 (the NRC is allowing it to continue operating as it considers its application) to Limerick Unit 2, which is licensed until 2049.

Five units are under construction: Units 3 and 4 at Vogtle, Units 2 and 3 at Virgil C. Summer, and Unit 2 at Watts Bar. The Tennessee Valley Authority says Watts Bar Unit 2 should come online in early 2016 (but it had not yet done so at press time). The other units are still several years from operation.

One project, Fermi 3, has received a combined construction and operating license from the NRC, but the licensee, DTE Energy, has not made a decision on whether to proceed with construction. It said in a statement when the license was issued that it will “keep the option open for long-term planning purposes.”

Pushing Out the Horizon

Dominion sent waves through the nuclear industry on November 6, 2015, when it became the first U.S. plant owner to notify the NRC of its intent to file a second license renewal application for the two-unit Surry Power Station by 2019. If granted, the extension could make Surry the first U.S. nuclear plant to be licensed for 80 years of operation. Its two Westinghouse pressurized-water reactors are currently licensed to operate through 2032 and 2033; a second extension would push those dates out to 2052 and 2053.

Continuing reactor operation beyond 60 years has been controversial, with nuclear experts disagreeing on the ability of plants built in the 1970s and 1980s to continue operating into the middle of this century. The issues involved in such long-term operation are many, varied, and complex, but the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the American Physical Society (APS) have both urged the industry and nation to consider the idea. The Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute are both studying the potential for long-term operation.

An APS report issued in 2014 notes that current research does not “indicate any technical show-stoppers that would prevent the renewal of licenses from 60 to 80 years, assuming rigorous application of maintenance, inspection, and aging management programs.”

Meanwhile, a report issued by the NEI in December 2015 argues that, “research has shown there are no generic technical issues that would prevent a well-maintained nuclear power plant from operating safely during a second license renewal period.”

The stakes for the nuclear industry and the nation are high, the NEI says. “Even with aggressive expansion of nuclear energy, the United States will nonetheless lose substantial capacity to generate clean-air energy unless licenses are extended.” ■

Thomas W. Overton, JD is a POWER associate editor.

[Note: When this article went to press, the NRC had not yet made a decision on the license extension for the Braidwood plant. It granted the extension on January 27.]

[Note 2: This article has been updated to correct the manufacturer of the Surry reactors, which was Westinghouse  not GE.]

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