Increasingly dependable and emitting few greenhouse gases, the U.S. fleet of nuclear power plants will likely run for another 50 or even 70 years before it is retired -- long past the 40-year life span planned decades ago -- according to industry executives, regulators and scientists.
With nuclear providing always-on electricity that will become more cost-effective if a price is placed on heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions, utilities have found it is now viable to replace turbines or lids that have been worn down by radiation exposure or wear. Many engineers are convinced that nearly any plant parts, most of which were not designed to be replaced, can be swapped out.
"We think we can replace almost every component in a nuclear power plant," said Jan van der Lee, director of the Materials Ageing Institute (MAI), a nuclear research facility inaugurated this week in France and run by the state-owned nuclear giant EDF.
"We don't want to wait until something breaks," he said. By identifying components that are wearing down and replacing them, he said, suddenly nuclear plants will find that "technically, there is no age limit."
Indeed, as U.S. regulators begin considering the extended operations of nuclear plants -- the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects the first application for an 80-year license could come within five years or less -- perhaps the largest lingering question is one of basic science: How do heavy doses of radiation, over generations, fundamentally alter materials like steel and concrete?
"It's taken many years for us to understand the problem," said Gary Was, the director of the University of Michigan's Phoenix Energy Institute and an expert in aging materials. "Thirty years ago, we didn't have techniques to see these changes."
Until recently, such research has not been a priority. But within the past few years, the Department of Energy began a program looking at "long-term operations," as it is known in the industry. And provisions in the Senate's climate bill call for DOE to increase these investigations in the hope of extending plant lives "substantially beyond the first license extension period."
DOE collaborates in this research with France's MAI and the U.S.-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a nonprofit funded by many nuclear utilities. U.S. leadership in the field is natural, given the sheer age of America's reactors, many of which are already coming close to exceeding their intended operating lives.
The oldest commercial plants in the United States reached their 40th anniversary this year, and the average plant has operated for 30 years. Already, more than half of the nation's more than 100 reactors have seen their initial licenses extended for an additional two decades. Nearly all the country's plants are expected to eventually win such extensions.
As companies have encountered few hurdles toward ensuring 60 years of operation, according to one 2007 survey, a majority of executives say that it is very likely their plants will operate for 80 years or longer. It is a fairly natural progression, according to Was.
"If they last till 60, maybe they can last to 80," Was said. "Heck, maybe 100?"