Nuclear Plants Nearing Retirement
The U.S. currently has over 2 GW of nuclear capacity scheduled to be retired within the next four years. The three planned closures are the 678 MW Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, the 610 MW Oyster Creek Generating Station, and the 852 MW James A. Fitzpatrick Power Station. The operators of these plants determined that while they had received extensions to their initial licenses, remaining operational was not economically viable.
Figure 1: U.S. Nuclear Capacity Source
As of August 2016, announced retirements looking even further into the future total above 7 GW with a few others being politically tenuous it further compounds the uncertainty within the nuclear fleet. Included in this 7 GW is the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska that was shut down by Omaha Public Power this year on October 24. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the remaining plants and their need for future license extensions.
The Arduous Licensing Process
Nuclear plants are initially licensed for up to forty years by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The operator may then apply for an additional twenty-year renewal; following that they can apply for a further extension of twenty more years. All extensions are initiated by the operator and must be started sufficiently ahead of the expiration of their current license for the NRC to evaluate the safety and environmental impacts of an extension. When operators apply more than five years prior to expiration, they can usually continue to operate while under this review. If they don’t apply until within five years of the expiration, they may be forced to stop operating until they are approved. The renewal process contains multiple cumbersome steps as shown in the diagram below.
Figure 2: License Renewal Process Source
Current Operating Nuclear Plants
The U.S. has 100 operating nuclear power plants; 45, or nearly half, have already operated through their forty-year operating license and are on their initial twenty-year extension. Two of these are approaching the need to apply for their second extension: Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania and Surry in Virginia.
Figure 3: Active Nuclear Reactors Source
To look at it another way, 81 plants have received their first renewal, an aging fleet in its own right. But this means up to 30 GW of nuclear power has an unknown fate based on a not-yet-granted second license extension alone. To date, no renewal applications have been permanently rejected but several plants have needed to make extensive improvements to gain approval.
Figure 4: Licensed Nuclear Plants Source
According to a recent Moody’s report, today’s low gas environment is making it difficult for some smaller nuclear units to survive competitively in the power market. The future of gas will likely play a key role in the future of nuclear viability, as even without costly improvements some nuclear generators are struggling to stay afloat.
Nuclear Plants Coming Online
Interestingly, there are still a number of newly constructed plants currently in the process of becoming licensed that will bring over 5,000 MW online by 2020; these include plants in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Additionally, there are up to six more applications for a combined 10 new reactors currently under review by the NRC. A few companies are also looking into new designs that are smaller in scale, under 500 MW as opposed to +1,000 MW, that are more modular in design. This new technology would give them the flexibility to be placed on more urban sites as needed to accommodate grid needs.
The Future Role of Nuclear Power
While a few sites are in the process of retiring their reactors, nuclear power is likely to be a part of the energy solution going forward for some time. The minutiae of the policies may change, but one thing is certain: nuclear power will play a significant role in meeting U.S. electricity needs while curbing carbon pollution. The U.S. Department of Energy reports the level of nuclear power generation for the country has been at 20 percent, the question is what hurdles will nuclear owners and operators have to overcome to maintain that level?