Producer: Shawn Allee
President Barack Obama has been stumping for nuclear power lately. He announced loan guarantees to kick-start construction of the first new reactor in 30 years. Those guarantees might lead to just a handful of new reactors in the next decade. Shawn Allee reports the real action in the nuclear industry is in old reactors we already have:
To run a reactor, you have to have the federal government's permission, but that permission lasts 40 years. If a company wants more time, it's got to renew that license - for twenty years at a pop. Companies are flooding the government with renewal applications. To understand why, I talk with Don Kreis. He teaches environmental law at the Vermont Law School.
"Think about an automobile that you owned for a really long time, but it's still working fine."
OK. You've got two choices .... you can bet your car repair costs will be low ... or you fork over a hefty wad of cash for a new car.
"Which of those two things are you going to do? Well, you're going to run your old machine ... and run it for as long as something can possibly run. Nuclear power plants run exactly the same way."
This is an understatement; it's MUCH cheaper to run an existing nuclear reactor than to build a new one. In Kreis' home state of Vermont, a company bought an old reactor in 2002. It paid $180 million. To build the same-sized plant new would cost $2.4 billion today. That's the industry's motivation for license renewal, but only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can give the final OK. In the past decade, the NRC's approved renewal at 59 reactors ... more than half the nuclear fleet. This is too fast for critics.
"We haven't been happy with the process and I think there are issues with license renewal and the NRC needs to address those," says Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group. Lyman worries the NRC downplays risk from old reactors.
Take the case of the Crystal River reactor in Florida. Last year, workers tried to replace old steam turbines.
"To do that you have to cut a hole in the containment building, when they did that, they found there was a huge gap that had developed in the containment building that you couldn't see or detect from the outside and they only saw it when they cut through it. And so, the question is, was this an age-related issue that people didn't know about."
The containment building keeps the public safe from radiation during accidents. The power company caught the problem after it submitted an application for renewal. Lyman also worries about corroding pipes and reactor vessels.
"So, there are uncertainties and these will probably only grow as the fleet of power plants gets older."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says critics like Lyman shouldn't worry about aging reactors. Samson Lee oversees renewal applications at the NRC. He says old reactors meet the same safety standards new ones do, plus, companies have to show they'll manage aging parts.
"So if they continue to meet the requirement to ensure the plants are safe, and if they continue to meet that, then you know, we can issue a renewal license."
But as for the charge the renewal process is too quick or easy? Lee says the NRC can say "no."
"NRC has returned one application for license renewal."
"What was that for?"
"That was because of poor quality of application. It was how they put together the application."
"Did that reflect on the plant or the application process?"
"It's the application process. This is how they chose to prepare the application."
So, for now ... the biggest problem the NRC has seen during license renewal has been in the paperwork.
Right now, the federal government's handing out renewal licenses, allowing nuclear power plants to run up to 60 years. But there's more to come. The government's prepared to evaluate renewals to let plants run up to 80 years.
For The Environment Report, I'm Shawn Allee.
Tomorrow Shawn Allee will have a report on one state that has said "no" to re-licensing a nuclear power plant.