Aging reactors: a failure to plan that will haunt nuclear utilities

Exelon's aging GE Mark I reactors at Peach Bottom. Photo by

Exelon’s aging GE Mark I reactors at Peach Bottom. Photo by

One reason that giant nuclear utilities like Exelon, Entergy, Duke and others are so aggressively taking extraordinary steps to force ratepayers to keep their obsolete, aging reactors operating at any cost is that these utilities have failed to adequately plan for the reality that reactors have a limited operational life and at some point will have to be retired.

The issue is global, it isn’t confined to the U.S., but the ramifications of this failure to plan, or perhaps to accept the reality that no machinery lasts forever–especially not the kind exposed to the tremendous heat and radiation levels that nuclear reactors are–will have its greatest impact in the deregulated states of the U.S. 

Two recent articles on the idea of extending reactor licenses even further than they already have been (and far further than is reasonable from a public safety perspective), one in the New York Times and one from the U.K., bring the fundamental issue to some light–even if perhaps unintentionally.

In Geriatric nuclear power plants deserve our respect, the U.K.’s Dermot Martin writes, “All round the world the governments and the nuclear industry are facing the fact that they will have to extend the life of existing reactors.”

The context is that it won’t be possible to build new reactors fast enough to replace the old ones, so the lifetime of the old ones must be extended.

But that’s the wrong context. Reactors don’t need to be replaced by reactors. Where their power does need to be replaced (and that isn’t everywhere), it can be replaced by any generating source. That’s a basic fact that the global nuclear industry desperately hopes will be ignored–and is a key factor in nuclear utility efforts to disparage renewable energy.

That’s the cue for Martin: “To many experts round the world it was obvious the so called green energy technologies such as wind and solar power would never be able to fill the gap.”

In fact, the skyrocketing growth of renewables is putting the lie to the notion that solar and wind can’t fill any electricity-production gap. It’s the nuclear industry that can’t build fast enough (nor economically enough) to fill the gap–not renewables.

Last Sunday, with several reactors down and a fire disabling a major gas plant, the UK suddenly realized the value of wind power–it alone provided 24% of the nation’s power that day, a new record. Yet the UK’s government continues to press ahead with extraordinarily expensive and downright silly new nuclear projects like the Hinkley Point reactor proposal–projects that will, as all reactor construction projects eventually do–go over-budget, be behind-schedule, and may never be completed at all.

In the UK, however, the government still controls a lot of decision-making over power needs. The situation is very different in the deregulated portions of the U.S.

As this 2011 map from CNN indicates, most reactors in the U.S. are now over 30 years old.

As this 2011 map from CNN indicates, most reactors in the U.S. are now over 30 years old.

By failing to plan ahead and recognize that their reactors will have to be retired, the nuclear-dominated utilities now have to pin their hopes on convincing federal and state regulators that there is no alternative to keeping the lights on. The reactors must continue to operate, no matter the cost to ratepayers.

Of course, there is also an added benefit to the utilities if they can win that argument: as one industry official told the New York Times, “If you’ve effectively paid off the plant, this is very cheap power,” said Neil Wilmshurst, a nuclear engineer at the Electric Power Research Institute. In other words, the reactors could go from being liabilities to cash cows.

The first problem for the utilities is competition. Any power from a closed reactor that does need to be replaced doesn’t, in fact, need to be replaced by the utility that closed the reactor. It can just as easily be replaced by a competitor, and in this case, the competitors are likely to be installing renewable energy sources that are both cheaper and cleaner than the old reactors. Indeed, it is primarily renewable energy (but also dirty fracked gas, depending on location) that have made so many of the older reactors uneconomic even before another license extension.

All reactors experience aging problems, but some age less gracefully than others. This is the rusted and corroded reactor vessel head found at Ohio's Davis-Besse a few years ago.

All reactors experience aging problems, but some age less gracefully than others. This is the rusted and corroded reactor vessel head found at Ohio’s Davis-Besse a few years ago.

The second problem is safety. Most U.S. reactors already have received one 20-year license extension, allowing them to operate for 60 years. Yet no reactor in the world has yet operated 60 years; there is only conjecture about whether they’ll last even that long. Only a handful of reactors globally even have reached 40 years yet. Even so, faced with their failure to plan ahead, nuclear utilities are now pushing the NRC to allow a second 20-year license extension, for an 80-year life.

Given that reactor designs pre-date their actual construction by a good decade or more, an 80-year license would mean that by the end of the license period, the reactor design itself could be a full century old.

As former NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis is quoted in the Times,

“I don’t know how we would explain to the public that these designs, 90-year-old designs, 100-year-old designs, are still safe to operate,” he said. “Don’t we need more convincing arguments than just ‘We’re managing aging effects’?”

“I mean, will you buy a car that was designed in ’64?” he asked.

That question would have an even greater import if it has to be asked again in 2064.

It’s not exactly comforting that the Times reports that the first seven reactors interested in an 80-year license are Exelon’s Peach Bottom, Dominion’s Surry, and Duke’s Oconee. Peach Bottom consists of two Fukushima-clone GE Mark I reactors, while Oconee is a three-unit clone of Three Mile Island. Clearly the nuclear utilities are playing with the Gods….

To its credit, the Times piece discusses some of the specific safety issues raised by aging reactors, like pressurized thermal shock and stress corrosion cracking (though the article doesn’t use those words).

By not planning ahead when they could have, by not moving to clean energy when they could have, the nuclear-dominated utilities have backed themselves into a corner. Their argument is down to: ‘we have these reactors, help us keep them operating at whatever cost even past their design lifetime,’ when the real question regulators must address is: how can we provide the cheapest, cleanest electricity possible?

And the answer to that question, if answered honestly and transparently, is not very often going to be by keeping old, uneconomic reactors operating. That’s bad news for the nuclear lobby, but good news for its growing legion of capable competitors.

Michael Mariotte

October 21, 2014


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6 thoughts on “Aging reactors: a failure to plan that will haunt nuclear utilities

  1. Jan Boudart

    Does anybody remember when E.F. Schumacher told us about this? 1973 it was. Global warming was established in 1979. I never thought I’d have to be combating these monsters.

  2. miningawareness

    D. McCarthy has a new book called “The Prostitute State” which gives insights into the inner machinations of the UK government, which block the nuclear exit. For instance the head of the DECC, dept. of the environment, Ed Davey’s brother was and maybe still is an attorney who worked with EDF when it acquired British Nuclear. It is certainly a holiday must read. It is available as an e-book and i-book. Although I haven’t finished it, just the House of Lords chapter is worth the money. Not only does he provide a theoretical model that may work elsewhere, but Sellafield works closely with the Savannah River site and many of the same companies are involved all over. McCarthy is an Irishman who had the opportunity to work with Lord Conrad Russell for 7 years in the LibDem party, before the first quit in disgust and the second died. Lord Russell’s ancestors sat for 300 years in the House of Lords and include Bertrand Russell. US conflicts of interest like Mary Landrieu sitting on the Senate Energy committee after receiving funding from Entergy and Shaw (who constructed Vogtle and the Mox plant) are, of course, legion in the US. Maybe if we all buy the McCarthy book he can write one devoted to the US or France next, although he does have some info on the US. Don’t get bogged down in the “new age” intro, though some may like that too. It’s a solid piece of academic work which reads like a novel and needs to be promoted widely.

  3. Peter Sipp

    The people that own & operate the reactors have succeeded in brainwashing themselves into thinking ” atomic energy can last … indefinitely” Now they will attempt to convince everyone else of the same fiction. “We can just put in a new reactor vessel, add some new piping that is not yet irradiated… a new steam turbine or two … and we can run another 40+ years” . WHEW!!!!! Mean while there IS STILL NO SOLUTION for the nuclear wastes/ irradiated metals that have been generated. We don’t have room to store either product. We have only one planet to live on. Only a stupid bird fouls it’s own nest.

  4. PCAH

    The longer existing reactors continue, the greater risk of core meltdown. The UK’s AGR reactors all suffer from age related structural degradation; cracked and misaligned graphite bricks, failed boiler tube welds, faulty fuel pins. The regulators do not make independent risk assessments; they just ask the operators, eg EDF, if they believe lifetime extensions are safe. Fox in charge of the hen house again. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima were all due to ‘human error’. If we don’t act soon, the UK will have lots of Fukushimas and it is totally pointless to pretend any protection is possible after the event.


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