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US NRC expects application to extend nuclear licenses beyond 60 years

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Officials of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear power industry expect the first application to be filed with the agency in 2018 or 2019 for a license renewal to operate a power reactor or reactors beyond 60 years.

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At a Nuclear Energy Institute forum in Washington Tuesday, neither NRC nor industry officials named specific plants considered likely to apply, and it was not clear from their remarks if any nuclear operator has yet volunteered to be the first to apply.

Seventy-three US nuclear power units have had their original 40-year operating licenses renewed by NRC for an additional 20 years after extensive agency safety and environmental reviews, and applications for an additional 18 units are under review, Garry Young, director of license renewal at Entergy, said in his remarks at the forum. All 100 operating US power reactors are expected to apply eventually for a first license renewal to operate for a total of 60 years, Young said.

Without subsequent license renewals allowing operation for a total lifetime of 80 years, the US commercial nuclear power fleet faces a wave of retirements starting in the next decade, with renewed licenses for 27 units expiring between 2023 and 2030, Young said. Renewed licenses for 67 units will expire between 2031 and 2049, he said.

Barclay Gibbs, a principal with the Berkeley Research Group, an energy consulting firm, said during the forum a BRG economic analysis released in January estimated that extending the operating lives of all US power reactors to 80 years could save on the order of $344 billion through the year 2090, compared to a scenario in which all those units shut permanently after 60 years of operation.

The savings would be accrued by averting the need to deploy additional non-nuclear generation capacity, primarily natural gas combined cycle and renewable units, Gibbs said. The analysis assumed refurbishment of a nuclear unit for operation beyond 60 years would cost about 15% of a reactor's initial capital cost, or around $40 per kilowatt of capacity for each year of additional operation, he said.


Current NRC license renewal regulations allow applications for subsequent renewals, and the industry does not "see a need for any significant changes to this process," Young said.

NRC officials speaking at the forum agreed. Commissioner Kristine Svinicki said in her remarks that "the current regulatory process [for license renewal] is adequate to assure and maintain safety" and is "very effective."

In January, NRC staff proposed some changes in that process in a paper to the commission. Melanie Galloway, deputy director of the division of license renewal in NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, described the proposed changes as "very minor," but said they would "have significant impact on providing the most robust framework possible to support subsequent license renewal."

Because the commission vote on staff's proposals is still underway, Svinicki said she could not comment in detail on them. However, she said that "any changes have to be rooted in fact" and "driven by necessity, not just an urge to tweak the process."

NRC's license renewal review process is "not the kind of infrastructure you can turn on a dime," Svinicki said.

Also, agency staff plans to update its regulatory guidance on conducting license renewal reviews to prepare for subsequent renewal applications, said Jennifer Uhle, NRC's deputy director for reactor safety programs.

Kathryn McCarthy of the Office of Light Water Reactor Sustainability at Idaho National Laboratory said her office's technical research has "identified no generic technical showstoppers that would preclude a subsequent license renewal application." Other NRC and industry officials echoed the "no showstoppers" remark during their presentations.

Uhle did not disagree, but she identified several potential aging effects on reactor pressure vessels, piping, cables and plant concrete structures that NRC review guidance must consider and industry should address in its applications. "We won't allow subsequent license renewal unless we're assured the plants are safe to operate in the extended period," Uhle said.

Industry must undertake efforts now to address those issues, she said. NRC staff "is not going to be able to resolve these issues, nor is it our role," Uhle said.

Douglas Walters, vice president for regulatory affairs at NEI, agreed that safe operation of any units operating beyond 60 years must and would be assured. However, he said that not all the aging effects identified by Uhle required definitive solutions to be identified during the NRC review of subsequent renewal applications.

"Not everything you need to do for long-term operation is a part of the regulatory process," Walters said. "I don't agree [finding solutions for each aging effect in advance] should be a requirement of getting a new license."

--Steven Dolley,
--Edited by Derek Sands,