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Unintended Consequences: Nuclear Backlash Energizes Old Plants

Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster is having an unanticipated effect: It is forcing the world to become more reliant than ever on aging nuclear plants, and if utilities have their way, those plants will run decades longer than envisioned.

A batch of new reactors had been planned for the U.S. and other nations, but the backlash against nuclear power triggered by the disaster has dimmed prospects for a “nuclear renaissance.” Few nations, however, have expressed any intention of giving up existing plants, often considered essential for meeting power demands.

In the U.S., two-thirds of nation’s 104 nuclear reactors have had their original 40-year licenses extended by 20 years, including nine extensions granted since the Japan accident. Regulators are conducting research to see if U.S. reactors could be pushed to 80 years. France’s nuclear regulator is plowing ahead with plans to extend the life of some plants to 60 years.

That disturbs some critics of nuclear power, who say old plants are more dangerous than new ones and license-extension procedures aren’t rigorous enough. In the U.S., for example, older plants have experienced problems such as corroded pipes leaking radioactive liquid into the ground, although regulators say not one has exposed the public to excessive doses of radiation.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission never has turned down a utility that asked to extend the life of a nuclear reactor, thus far approving 71 such requests. Thirteen more requests are currently on the table.

“One would think the events in Japan would at least have slowed down the conveyor belt for license extensions,” says Paul Gunter, spokesman for Beyond Nuclear, an antinuclear organization in Maryland. “But it had no effect.”

The NRC says there is no reason plants can’t run 60 years or more if properly maintained, and that detailed aging-management plans are a condition of license renewal. Those plans focus on the inspection and maintenance of equipment that isn’t routinely replaced, such as reactor-containment structures and concrete work.

On Aug. 30, the NRC staff deemed “acceptable” the aging-management plan for Entergy Corp.’s Indian Point nuclear plant 26 miles outside of New York City, removing one of the last remaining hurdles to a license extension. The state of New York wants the reactors retired when their licenses expire in 2013 and 2015.

Aging reactors are becoming common all over the world. The U.K. has four reactors that are at least 40 years old. Switzerland has three. Russia, Japan, Canada, India, Pakistan and Spain each have one. More than one-third of the 33 nations with nuclear plants have never shut down a reactor, including China, India, Argentina and Brazil.

Supporters and opponents of nuclear power agree that plant longevity is increasing. “The idea in France, the U.S., and just about everywhere else, is to prolong the life of these reactors,” says Mycyle Schneider, a nuclear consultant in Paris who often works for nuclear critics.

Not all nuclear-powered nations plan to keep their plants in operation. In June, the German government decided to shut down all 17 of its reactors by 2022, and it has already closed eight. In July, Japan’s then-prime minister said he wanted the nation to gradually phase out nuclear power, although skeptics wonder whether the energy-resource-poor nation can afford to do that. Switzerland has said it will retire its five reactors when their licenses expire between 2019 and 2034.

Before the Japan disaster, President Barack Obama supported building new nuclear reactors and Congress had approved loan guarantees and other subsidies to help utilities cover the high cost. But the failure of critical safety systems at the Japanese plant after the March earthquake and tsunami, which led to radiation leaks and environmental contamination, shook public confidence in nuclear power.

Several U.S. nuclear operators are backing away from new construction.

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