Memo to the President-Elect (Part 2)


A clear and present need for nuclear energy expansion.

A clear and present need for nuclear energy expansion.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2008

If the recent presidential election campaign is any indication, energy-policy issues will rank among the new Obama Administration’s top priorities. This extended memo to the new administration—which began in the November issue of Fortnightly—describes the clear and present need for additional nuclear power in the United States, and proposes policy changes that will ensure America meets this need in a timely and effective way.

Part 1 of the memo established that nuclear-power plants generate approximately 20 percent of electricity in the United States, and the country’s future depends on policies that provide greater support for this vital source of energy. Part 2 recommends actions for the new administration to ensure the existing nuclear fleet can continue operating safely, reliably and cost-effectively for decades to come—and also to lay the groundwork for an expansion of nuclear energy in the United States.

Nuclear Life Extension

America’s 104 operating commercial light-water reactors (LWRs) constitute the largest domestic source of non-greenhouse-gas (GHG)-emitting energy production. Most of these plants began operation in the 1970s and 1980s with an initial licensed period of operation of 40 years. 1 Approximately half of these plants have demonstrated they can continue operating safely beyond this initial licensed period and have applied for, and received, license extensions from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to allow for extended operation periods of up to 60 years in total. All licensees are expected to apply for this extra 20 years of operating life.

Whether those plants can continue operating beyond that time depends on additional action to further extend licenses beyond this 60-year period. Without such action, more than 100 GW of electric generation capacity will be lost between 2030 and 2045 (see Figure 1) . It’s unlikely that cost-effective sources of non-GHG-emitting generating capacity will be available to replace this loss and also serve growing demand. Other technologies to produce clean power either have not been proven yet or are unlikely to be deployed quickly enough to meet expected demand growth. Therefore, to ensure the nation’s energy security needs are met in an environmentally benign manner, investigative research must begin now to determine if the current generation of nuclear plants can continue to be safely operated beyond 60 years.

Central to the question of whether or not the current fleet of nuclear reactors can operate beyond 60 years are two primary concerns: 1) ensuring continued long-term safety; and 2) maintaining economic viability. Ensuring safety is a prerequisite to all other decisions. For continued operation, adequate safety margins must be shown to exist in subsequent license-renewal periods. Once this precondition is adequately demonstrated, utility companies then must be able to justify the costs associated with continuing to maintain and operate