Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Aging but able nuclear fleet may be a key to thwarting climate change in the short term

U.S. nuclear energy plants were commissioned to last 40 years, but the average plant may now stay in working condition for another 50 or 70 years before it is retired. The recently improved ability of engineers to replace parts in facilities that were designed to last a plant's entire lifespan has pushed nuclear to the front of some strategic energy plans to thwart climate change, Paul Voosen of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

The recent push for alternative energy sources has lead the Department of Energy to research nuclear power as a "long-term operation" for the first time, Voosen reports. The oldest U.S. commercial plants turned 40 this year, and the average plant is 30 years old. Already more than half of the nation's reactors have had their original licenses extended for an additional two decades, Voosen writes, and most of the rest are expected to win such decisions. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it expects the first 80-year permit to be applied for in the next five years.

Engineers say they have already replaced almost every part in a nuclear plant at some point, with the lone exceptions being the critical elements: the reactor pressure vessel and the concrete containment structure. In Russia, engineers have piloted an effort to replace pressure vessels, Voosen reports, but the process is very expensive and challenging. Current DOE research revolves around the long-term effect of radiation on concrete, a phenomenon that is still poorly understood. Gary Was, the director of the University of Michigan's Phoenix Energy Institute, says these questions have to be answered to support energy demand: "Without relicensing, we go off a cliff five years from now." (Read more)

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