Despite concerns over safety, including uncertainty over how long the reactors will be able to keep running, some licenses have been renewed through 2040
FORKED RIVER, N.J. -- Obscured by scrub trees and unkempt shrubs not far from the Atlantic Ocean, the Oyster Creek nuclear plant, which has generated electricity since Richard Nixon became president in 1969, is looking at a prolonged life, as regulators allow utilities to run reactors decades longer than first anticipated.
Driven by demand for cheap power, utilities are seeking to keep existing reactors operating until as late as 2040 and beyond. Regulators have approved license extensions for aging nuclear plants across the country, with more to come.
Which raises the question, how long can a nuclear plant run safely?
"There is nothing to stop them from operating safely" indefinitely, said Alex Marion, senior director of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who said utilities routinely replace aging components and upgrade facilities.
But critics argue that the older nuclear plants--and at nearly 35 years Oyster Creek is the country's oldest still in operation--need retirement to avoid the risk of a catastrophe. Some warn that the plants, which store decades worth of high-level nuclear waste, could cause a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been doing a terrible job of ensuring that these plants are safe," said Anna Aurilio, legislative director for the national office of the Public Interest Research Group. "We think most of them should be shut down."
Originally licensed for 40 years, plants are now winning 20-year extensions from the NRC.
The relicensings are justified, the NRC says, because utilities are getting better at operating the older plants, a sign they are safe for the future.
"We are continuing to see performance improve," said Christopher Grimes, deputy director of engineering at the NRC.
The NRC has extended the licenses for 26 plants around the country, with 42 more applications pending or expected.
On a national scale, the relicensing means that nuclear facilities will remain an important source of electricity well past the first third of the century.
Extending the lives of reactors is particularly important for Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the nation's largest operator of nuclear plants.
Exelon is the corporate parent of Commonwealth Edison in Illinois and other utilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The company says it plans to seek relicensing for most, if not all, of its 10 nuclear power plants across the country. Other utilities are expected to do the same, eventually extending the lives of nearly all the 103 nuclear plants now operating.
"With the right engineering, with the right inspection, these plants can safely operate another 20 years," said Christopher Crane, president of Exelon Nuclear.
Realities of aging
Some problems are generic to all nuclear plants as they age. Cracking and corrosion of vital components is always a risk, for example.
And neutrons issuing from the reactor core can eventually cause the reactor's steel vessel to become brittle. The vessel is essential to nuclear safety, and its structural integrity must never be compromised.
The nuclear industry says it guards against such problems, and will do so with relicensed plants in the decades ahead.
But two models of nuclear plants, the General Electric Mark 1 and 2, particularly worry some nuclear scientists because of their design.
The vast bulk of the nation's spent nuclear fuel, many thousands of tons of still-radioactive uranium, is stored near the reactors that consumed it. That's because local opposition has blocked federal plans to deposit high-level nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.
Most nuclear plants store their spent fuel in pools built into the earth. Water in the pools blocks radiation and cools the hot fuel rods after they are removed from the reactor.
The GE plants are different. Their spent fuel is stored in a pool of water located above the reactor, essentially on the roof.
So at 32 plants around the country, the spent fuel pools stand far above the ground. At Oyster Creek, for example, the pool is 119 feet in the air.
The pools, a bit smaller than a typical back yard pool but much deeper, have concrete walls at least a yard thick, strong enough to resist a heavy blow. They include systems for cooling the water so the fuel cannot boil it away.
The roofed room above the pools is made of heavy construction-grade steel, strong but not nearly as strong as the massive protective structures that surround reactors. The NRC acknowledges that a large enough plane could pierce the roof or metal walls above the pool.
"These spent fuel pools are basically pre-deployed nuclear weapons," said Deb Katz, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network, which opposes relicensing of the GE-designed nuclear plants.
The fear is that terrorists or a natural disaster could drain the water from the pool or prevent it from being cooled. Should that happen, heat from the spent fuel rods would accumulate. Under some scenarios, nuclear engineers say, the fuel would ignite and send a plume of radiation high into the atmosphere, contaminating a wide area.
"When the temperature gets over 3,000 or 4,000 degrees, the metal tubing that holds the fuel rods catches on fire," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"You could get a large radioactive cloud escaping from the plant. The cloud would contain radioactive isotopes of cesium, strontium and other elements ... and could cause harm out to 500 miles."
GE maintains its Mark 1 and 2 plants are safe. "The NRC has a very stringent process" in issuing licenses, said Andy White, chief executive of GE's nuclear business.
The NRC also says the plants, when properly maintained and inspected, are safe to operate well into the future. In recent days, it downplayed the risk from a plane crashing into a nuclear plant, saying radioactive releases are apt to be minimal.
There is a technique, called dry storage, for emptying the fuel pools and securing the radioactive material they contain. It involves placing the spent fuel in 2-foot-thick, concrete-and-steel casks nearly the size of a truck trailer. The massive dimensions of the casks are intended to protect the fuel within through almost any assault.
Exelon is placing spent fuel in casks at Oyster Creek and two other plants, but it is only doing so as it runs out of room in the fuel pools. The company says that because of the cost, it does not plan to empty the pools and will instead continue to use them for fuel storage.
"Let's not create unnecessary expense," said Wayne Romberg, a program manager for Exelon at the Oyster Creek plant who estimated it would cost $30 million to move all of his plant's spent fuel from its pool into casks.
Early this year, nuclear physicist Jan Beyea, along with other scientists concerned about nuclear safety, released a paper estimating the cost if spent nuclear fuel were to burn at selected plants.
"This would be a major disaster for a huge part of the country," Beyea said in an interview. "It is really unthinkable."
Among the sites Beyea studied was Exelon's two-reactor nuclear plant in LaSalle County. LaSalle has an elevated spent fuel pool, as do Illinois reactors at the Dresden 2 and 3 plant near Morris and the Quad Cities 1 and 2 plant near Cordova.
Under one scenario, Beyea concluded that a fire in the spent fuel at LaSalle could cause $270 billion in property damage and decontamination expense. He estimated 6,400 people would die of cancer.
"These figures are very optimistic in many ways," Beyea said.
Beyea isn't predicting disaster. But he does say the country should debate the issue of relicensing older reactors.
"This is a decision not for scientists but for the public," he said. "Experts tend to be overconfident in what could go wrong."
Industry advocates point to what they say are compelling reasons, among them safety, for keeping older reactors in operation.
"These plants are running better than they ever have," said Don Kirchoffner, a spokesman for Exelon.
It's true the nuclear industry in general, and Exelon in particular, have sharply improved plant operations.
The NRC says safety equipment problems and other negative events have generally declined since 1990. Radiation exposure to workers, one sign of a utility's competence to operate a plant, has fallen for years. The cost of electricity generated by the plants is going down as well.
Exelon, whose Commonwealth Edison ran into a variety of problems trying to operate a nuclear plant in the 1990s, now is doing well. This summer, for example, Commonwealth Edison's Illinois plants operated at record electrical output.
The length of the original 40-year license for U.S. nuclear plants wasn't chosen for any engineering reason. Industry analysts say it was picked for accounting purposes, not as the actual life span of the plant.
And the nuclear plants' age comes with a dividend: They are paid for.
It is jarring to hear nuclear critics and proponents agree on anything, but both sides say there is a strong financial incentive to keep an old plant operating as long as possible.
"The rate payers have already paid off the mortgage on these plants," said Aurilio, of the Public Interest Research Group.
Because of that, the plants can produce electricity cheaper than any other source except hydroelectric. Even with more than a billion dollars' worth of upgrades over the years, Exelon says Oyster Creek is probably economically viable.
Richard Myers, a director of business and environmental policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the price of nuclear fuel is stable and the plants produce large amounts of electricity at a time when no major sources of power are coming on line.
Looking at an operating nuclear plant from an economic standpoint, Myers said, "it's tough to imagine why you would want to shut it down."
And except for controversy surrounding the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, there is little public opposition to extending the lives of nuclear plants.
When the plants were first approved in the 1960s and '70s, there was fierce debate over nuclear energy. Opponents then feared there would be no permanent repository for nuclear waste, which is still the case today.
In New Jersey, Gov. James McGreevey opposes the relicensing of the Oyster Creek plant, saying "the 20-year extension is an unnecessary risk to communities across New Jersey." Local governments have condemned the relicensing, and several community groups are opposed.
But in Illinois, little protest was heard in May when the NRC extended the lives of the Dresden 2 and 3 reactors to the year 2029. Illinois has six GE Mark 1 or 2 reactors, the most of any state.
David Kraft, director of the Evanston-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, said anti-nuclear activists have become discouraged by the pro-nuclear attitude of regulators.
"So many of us have given up on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission being fair," Kraft said. "They are going to relicense everything."
The NRC denies it is lenient in allowing old nuclear plants to remain in service.
"We are a very tough regulator, and known to be a very tough regulator," said NRC spokeswoman Sue Gagner.
That may be the case, but the agency has yet to reject a relicensing request.
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