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Estimating the Longevity of Commercial Nuclear Reactors

A demographic analysis of plants in the U.S.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2015

A recent article published in The New York Times examined the claim of the U.S. nuclear industry that the aging reactors of its domestic nuclear fleet would be able to continue operating to an age of 60 years. 1 This claim seems an absurd assertion, since few technologies last 60 years. When the current generation of nuclear reactors was planned, eight-track tape players dominated music, computers occupied entire buildings, and the life expectancy of the average American male was 67 years.

The question of the life span of these resources is now highly pertinent, given efforts to subsidize nuclear units in New York and Illinois. Are these subsidies for five years or 30 years? Obviously, the expected lifetime of these units is going to have a central bearing on the debate.

There is little research on the life expectancy of the average commercial reactor. According to data published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the oldest operating nuclear reactor (Dottingen, Switzerland) is only 44 years old. 2

Figure 1 - Age of Nuclear Reactors, Worldwide

The most common analysis of the life expectancy of nuclear reactors uses the "Grandfather's Hammer" model. In this model, it is assumed that when the head of the hammer ages, it will be replaced. When the handle ages, it is replaced. The logical conclusion drawn from the model is that the life expectancy of a hammer is effectively infinite.

While the model appears perfectly adequate for determining the life expectancy of hammers, it is a poor predictor for determining the lifecycle of machines with more complexity. For example, we long ago "decommissioned" our cathode ray tube televisions, our reel-to-reel tape recorders, and our stereo consoles, which were the same vintage as the average nuclear plant in the U.S., without attempting to keep them in service by replacing bits and pieces of those machines as they wore out.

In fact, our 1960s-vintage TV never suffered a catastrophic failure. Instead, it faced several stages of technological obsolescence: e.g., its capability was limited to antenna reception, and its screen was too small. Repairs became difficult as more reliable, solid-state components replaced tubes. Finally, flat screens replaced the entire technology. The "Grandfather's Hammer" model simply was not applicable.

A global review of the life expectancy of commercial nuclear power plants shows a similar pattern. Although catastrophic failures have occurred - Chernobyl and Fukushima are the prime examples - the number of units decommissioned by major failures is small.

And catastrophic accidents are relatively rare. Such accidents are measured by the IAEA's International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), as depicted here in Figure 2. Note, for example, that Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) are the only category 7 events. Three Mile Island (1979) was a Category 5, as was the lesser known Windscale Pile (1957). 3

Of the 150 nuclear reactors that have been decommissioned, the