The TrickyScribe: As the ongoing debate on climate change has drifted from rosy exhortations by world leaders to the gritty, behind-closed-doors business of crafting an international agreement on restricting emissions of greenhouse gases, one theme has emerged: it is now broadly acknowledged that any path forward must include nuclear power.
Of the total 10.8 lakh GWh electricity production in India, 22 operational (besides six under construction) nuclear power plants contribute a meager 34,853.44 GWh of nuclear electricity if the power reactor information system (PRIS) run by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is to be believed. The United States is currently running 99 reactors, making it the country with the maximum number of nuclear power generation units online, followed by France with 58 units.
The infographic below shows that a lot of the currently still running reactors were connected to the grid in the 1980s, now 29 to 38 years old. In Germany, where the government decided to shut down all nuclear plants by the end of 2022, all of the 7 still running reactors were built in the 1980s.
The average age of American nuclear fleet is 35 years, near the end of most operating licenses. If Nuclear Energy Institute is to be believed, a dozen plants, with a combined capacity of 12,189 MW, are scheduled to be closed by 2025. If those plants go offline it would mean the emission of an additional 67.3 million tons of carbon dioxide a year (to replace the lost power with fossil-fuel generation).
Many of these plants, though, will likely keep operating, thanks to Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) practice of granting new licenses to plants that have outlived their original operating licenses.
Nuclear reactors and the plants that house them are subject to a number of unique forms of wear and tear, including the embrittlement of the reactor vessel from neutron bombardment over many years. Pushing these plants into their seventh and eighth decades is uncharted territory. Acknowledging these issues, the NRC will issue the latest edition of its report exploring the technical issues associated with aging reactors, the Generic Aging Lessons Learned Report, at the end of the year.
MONEY BEHIND EARLY SHUTDOWNS
While there are significant unknowns around extending the lives of nuclear plants built in the 1970s and 1980s, industry insiders believe that the reactors can operate safely for 80 years. And it’s economic issues, not technical ones that are likely to shutter aging nuclear plants over the next 20 years.
Cheap natural gas and flattening demand for electricity have combined to make older nuclear plants relatively uneconomical. Although the price of uranium fuel is relatively low, and nuclear plants are comparatively inexpensive to operate (levelized cost of electricity from existing nuclear plants is lower, on a per-megawatt-hour basis than that from combined-cycle natural gas plants), flagging demand, high maintenance costs and competition from cheap natural gas are all combining to make it less attractive to utilities to keep older nuclear plants running.
OLDEST AND STILL SERVING
The oldest reactors worldwide went online some 49 years ago. One of them is the reactor 1 at Beznau nuclear power plant in Switzerland which has been delivering electricity since July 1969.