Nuclear reactors are getting old–and it’s showing.

The aging of nuclear reactors is a topic that is receiving renewed attention this week, and for good reason. Last year, in the U.S. alone, technical problems faced by older reactors closed two reactors at San Onofre, California and one at Crystal River. Last week we learned that the two reactors at St. Lucie, Florida may now face similar issues, while the owners of the decrepit Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio have optimistically launched a $600 million effort to replace steam generators there (steam generators were the fundamental problem at all of these other reactors). Economic problems–the inability for aging reactors to compete with lower cost electricity sources, partly because of the large costs associated with maintaining them (after all, as the industry constantly touts, their uranium fuel source is cheaper than fossil fuels), led to the shutdown of the Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin and the pending shutdown of Vermont Yankee. Several other reactors, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, are believed to be close to permanent shutdown because of their lack of economic competitiveness.

The Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio is undergoing a $600 million facelift. Can that save this decrepit reactor? Photo by NRC.

The Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio is undergoing a $600 million facelift. Can that save this decrepit reactor? Photo by NRC.

Like all man-made machines, nuclear reactors get old. Just like your lawnmower, refrigerator, car have to be repaired and eventually replaced, just like factories need to be modernized or just as often often razed and rebuilt, so too do nuclear reactors. One difference is that in nuclear reactors, which are required to use much higher quality components than a household appliance or automobile, replacement of major systems can be extraordinarily expensive. The other difference, of course, is that unlike virtually any other man-made machine, failure of an aging reactor system can lead to catastrophe.

NIRS published its first major report on aging reactors about 20 years ago–even then it was clear that licenses from the NRC to operate are simply pieces of paper. The real roadblocks to extended operations would be the cost of maintenance, major repairs, and modernization. Since then, most U.S. reactors have received those pieces of paper that extend their operational lifetimes to 60 years from 40 years, although as we reported in Nuclear Newsreel February 25, the NRC is expecting applications from some utilities to re-extend their licenses to allow an 80-year lifetime–although no reactor in the world has yet reached 60 years. Again, it’s a legal document–a piece of paper, not an assurance that a man-made machine can overcome the inevitable costs of aging-related repairs and obsolescence.

With that in mind, Greenpeace International yesterday published a major report (Lifetime extension of ageing nuclear power plants: Entering a new era of risk) (pdf file) and unveiled a new website on the risks of aging nuclear reactors in Europe. By the time of next week’s third anniversary of the onset of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, out of 151 reactors in Europe, 66 will be more than 30 years old, 25 more than 35 years, and 7 more then 40 years.

In an accompanying commentary, veteran Greenpeace and NIRS/WISE activist Jan Haverkamp argues that attempting to extend the lifetimes of European reactors “would be a multiple mistake for the European Union.” It would put citizens into a new era of risk, and spending the money to upgrade reactors to meet modern requirements (which in France, for example, is estimated at 4 billion Euros per reactor)”would be a waste of money” that would be better used to ensure that alternative energy sources are there when the reactors close.

Concludes Haverkamp, “The European leaders will discuss our energy future not too far after the third anniversary of the Fukushima catastrophe. If they don’t shed the shackles to their big energy companies, we will be facing more Fukushimas with our ageing nuclear fleet. The last thing you want if you face a climate crisis as we do now, is being tied in by a nuclear accident. It’s time to set the switches right: 55% greenhouse gas reductions in 2030, a binding minimum of 45% renewables and 40% efficiency increase. Nuclear power can’t help to deliver these targets.”

In the U.S., Dave Lochbaum of Union of Concerned Scientists has also raised the aging issue recently. In Nuclear Plants and Nuclear Excuses: This is Getting Old on UCS’ All Things Nuclear blog, Lochbaum examines an October 2013 report from the NRC’s independent Office of Inspector General (OIG) audited the NRC’s oversight of active component aging.

The OIG audit concluded:

“The NRC’s approach for oversight of licensee’s management of active component aging is not focused or coordinated. This has occurred because NRC has not conducted a systematic evaluation of program needs for overseeing licensees’ aging management for active components since the establishment of the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) in 2000, and does not have mechanisms for systematic and continual monitoring, collecting, and trending of age-related data for active components. Consequently, NRC cannot be fully assured that it is effectively overseeing licensees’ management of aging active components.”

The NRC staff replied to a draft version of the audit and the OIG then responded–very critically–to eleven separate NRC replies. Lochbaum looked at each reply and response and concluded the final score was OIG 11, NRC 0.

Lochbaum’s final thoughts are well worth keeping in mind, especially by those in the areas populated by aging U.S. reactors (which, of course, is nearly all U.S. reactors).

“The blog’s title of “This is Getting Old” applies to both safety components at nuclear power plants and to the NRC’s tired denials.

The reason the NRC’s Operating Experience Branch reviewed five years of data was to ascertain what is working well and where improvements might be warranted. The report it produced well served that purpose.

OIG’s audit had a similar objective in determining where the NRC is doing well and where improvements are warranted. The audit report it produced fully met that objective.

Collectively, these reports constitute an action plan identifying which practices should be sustained and those practices to be supplemented or strengthened.

But instead of viewing the reports as roadmaps showing timely mid-course corrections, NRC’s senior management responded by essentially denying that the eleven problems even exist.

In a sad sense, they are quite right—it’s not that eleven problems exist. Their denial of the problems makes for an even dozen—the eleven problems joined by the stubborn refusal to authorize the improvements so clearly identified and badly needed.

The first step in any 12-step program involves admitting there’s a problem to be solved. NRC’s senior managers should stop their two-step pretending that no problems exist and start on the path to solutions.

Michael Mariotte


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