Center for Strategic Communication

photo: NRC

photo source: NRC

The Nuclear Energy Institute hosted a two-day conference on Feb. 26-27 on relicensing the nation’s aging nuclear fleet. Many of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants have reached or are rapidly approaching the end of their original 40-year licenses. In the 1990’s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiated a relicensing process to extend the life of these reactors, offering a pathway to achieve a 20-year license renewal, bringing a typical plant’s life to 60 years of operation. To date, 73 of the 104 reactors have obtained 20-year extensions.

Since the vast majority of the nuclear plants were built in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the 60-year timeframe will put the expiration of many operating licenses around the late 2020’s and early 2030’s. The NRC states that it takes a minimum of five years to complete the license renewal application for each reactor. The nuclear industry would like to tack on an additional 20 years to the first license renewal, pushing the lifespan of the typical reactor to 80 years.

However, the nuclear industry is also aware that the NRC cannot handle an onslaught of renewal applications all at once in the mid-2020’s, ahead of many license expirations. Therefore, they want to begin the process now in order to stagger the timing of the applications.

NEI billed the two-day conference this week as the first of its kind – a conference on extending the nuclear fleet to 80 years. The keynote speaker was Senator Mike Crapo (ID), who spoke very positively of nuclear power. He stated that license renewal for an additional 20 years should be NRC’s top priority. But, he also lamented the slow progress the U.S. is making in rolling out next-generation reactors. While there are four reactors under construction, he pointed to the fact that China is building 28 reactors, with dozens more in the offing. According to Senator Crapo, while the U.S. is falling behind, a nuclear “renaissance” is still possible.

Only a few years ago a “renaissance” was predicted for the nuclear industry, with a perfect storm of high natural gas prices, climate change concerns, as well as the advent of many new reactor designs. The renaissance quickly came to a halt, due to a confluence of events: the shale gas revolution made natural gas significantly cheaper for electricity generation than nuclear, the financial crisis crippled the economy, and weak energy demand growth has obviated the need for new capacity (in the short-run at least).

At NEI’s conference, however, while the industry is concerned over the short-term, many believe the long-term future of nuclear power is bright.

Third Way’s Rob Walther spoke to the optimistic case for nuclear power. He noted three key reasons why nuclear power will continue to play a critical role in the U.S. energy mix. First, natural gas prices cannot stay low forever. Rig counts are down because it is not profitable to produce; the cutback will lead to higher prices. Second, eventually the U.S. will regulate carbon in some way. Nuclear power produces emissions-free electricity and thus stands to benefit from carbon limits. Third, policymakers will continue to value energy diversity. These three factors position nuclear to benefit in the coming years.

At ASP, we believe the U.S. needs to continue to transition to clean energy. As the only source of base load power that does not emit greenhouse gases, ASP believes that there is no conceivable way to meet climate goals in a relevant timeframe without nuclear power. Whether or not that means the NRC should extend the lifespan of the nation’s nuclear fleet beyond 60 years, one way or another nuclear power must play a significant role in reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.