Extending Lives of Nuclear Plants to 80 Years?

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"Is there life after 60?"

Next year, when two nuclear reactors near Syracuse, N.Y., are shut down for normal refueling operations, technicians will enter their cavernous containment structures looking for signs of aging in the thick steel walls surrounding shrouds of concrete.

Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, which runs the Ginna and Nine Mile Point 1 reactors, volunteered for the inspections at DOE's request. It's a new phase in a government and industry investigation into the possibilities of running the nation's 104 nuclear plants for as long as 80 years—twice their expected lifespans when they were originally licensed.

The failure of Congress to reach agreement on climate and energy legislation has left the future of U.S. new nuclear projects up in the air, focusing more attention on the possibility and the challenges of further extending the life expectancy of the current nuclear fleet, industry officials say.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, Energy Department counterparts, utility executives and research leaders are scheduled to meet in February for a "tabletop" conference on the technical and regulatory issues that could confront a new wave of relicensing applications by reactor owners. Today's reactors, most of which were built in the 1960s and 1970s, were initially licensed for 40 years. Half of them have won NRC approval to operate for another 20 years, and the rest are expected to do the same.

Now the question is: "Is there life after 60?" as James Sheppard, former CEO of STP Nuclear Operating Co., told a DOE conference on the question two years ago. DOE is supporting research into extended reactor life, as are nuclear plant operators through the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an industry research and development organization. An industry-created international research program, the Materials Ageing Institute, based in France, is also stepping up investigations on the issue.

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