U.S. NRC Considering Giving 80-year Operating Licenses to Nuclear Power Plants

KARL GROSSMAN
NationofChange/news investigation
Published: Monday 4 June 2012
“To double the design life of these plants—which operate under high-pressure, high heat conditions and are subject to radiation fatigue—is an example of out-of-control hubris, of believing your own lies.”
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The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be holding a meeting this week to consider having nuclear power plants run 80 years—although they were never seen as running for more than 40 years because of radioactivity embrittling metal parts and otherwise causing safety problems.

“The idea of keeping these reactors going for 80 years is crazy!” declares Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy advisor at the U.S, Department of Energy and a U.S. Senate senior investigator. He is also an author of the book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation. “To double the design life of these plants—which operate under high-pressure, high heat conditions and are subject to radiation fatigue—is an example of out-of-control hubris, of believing your own lies.”

“In a post-Fukushima world, the NRC has no case to renew life-spans of old, danger-prone nuke plants. Rather, they must be shut down,” says Priscilla Star, director of the Coalition Against Nukes.

“This is an absurdity and shows the extent to which the NRC is captured,” says Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace. “Nuclear regulators know that embrittlement of the reactor vessels limits nuclear plant life but are willing to expose the public to greater risks from decrepit, old and leaking reactors. As we learned from Fukushima, the nuclear industry is willing to expose the public to catastrophic risks.”

Nevertheless, on Thursday at its headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, the NRC is to hold a meeting with the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute, which does studies for the nuclear industry, “to discuss and coordinate long-term operability research programs,” says the NRC, which could lead to it letting nuclear plants run for 80 years.

For more than a decade, the NRC has been extending the operating licenses of nuclear plants from 40 years to 60 years. And just as the NRC has never denied a construction or operating license for a nuclear plant anywhere, anytime in the U.S., it has rubber-stamped every application that has come before it for a 20-year extension of the plant’s original 40-year license. It has now approved 60-year operating licenses for 73 of the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. 

When the NRC in 2009 OK’d extending the operating license to 60 years of the oldest nuclear plant in the U.S., Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Jeff Titel, president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, declared: “This decision is radioactive. To keep open the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant for another 20 years is just going to lead to a disaster. We could easily replace the plant with 200 windmills that will not pose a danger.” With the same General Electric design as the six Fukushima nuclear power plants, the plant is 60 miles south of New York City.

The first nuclear plants given permission by the NRC to operate for 60 years were the two Calvert Cliffs plants located on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay near Lusby, Maryland, 45 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. That came in 1999. The NRC license extension program is “blind to how these machines are breaking apart at the molecular level…they embrittle, crack and corrode,” said Paul Gunter, then with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and now director of the Reactor Oversight Project of the organization Beyond Nuclear. The NRC in its “rigged game” is driving the nation toward a nuclear disaster, said Gunter. “The term ‘nuclear safety’ is an oxymoron. It’s an inherently dangerous process and an inherently dangerous industry that has been aging.”

The Associated Press conducted “a yearlong investigation of aging issues at the nation’s nuclear power plants” and, in a report in June 2011 by Jeff Donn, declared: “Regulators now contend that the 40-year limit was chosen for economic reasons and to satisfy safety concerns, not for safety issues. They contend that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life. But an AP review of historical records, along with interviews with engineers who helped develop nuclear power, shows just the opposite: Reactors were made to last only 40 years. Period.”

Moreover, “the AP found that the relicensing process often lacks fully independent safety reviews. Records show that paperwork of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometimes matches word-for-word the language used in a plant operator’s application.” Also, under the NRC’s “relicensing rules, tight standards are not required to compensate for decades of wear and tear.”

Getting operating license extensions “is a lucrative deal for operators,” said the AP.

With operating license extensions, operators of nuclear power plants can wring out as much profits as they can. And not only do they want their plants to operate beyond their 40-year design basis, but they have been asking—and getting approval from the NRC—to have their plants generate more electricity than they were designed to provide, to run hotter and harder. The NRC calls this “uprating”—and has obliged the industry on this, too, simultaneous with extending the operating licenses of nuclear plants.

Alvarez commented last week: “Would you want to drive around in an 80-year-old automobile souped-up to go twice as fast as it was supposed to?”

“They are pushing these machines at levels and for time periods for which they were not envisioned operating,” said Alvarez. Much of “this 80-year business,” he added, involves a concern by the nuclear industry that “they’re not going to build any new reactors anytime soon”—thus the push to keep existing plants running. And, a “root cause” is that those behind nuclear power “operate in isolation, secrecy and privilege and only talk to themselves. They form an echo chamber. They cast out those who do not agree. These are the prime ingredients of corruption of science and safety.”

By extending the operating licenses of nuclear plants, the NRC is inviting catastrophe. It’s asking for it. The gargantuan problem is that the “it” is an atomic catastrophe which, as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster and last year’s Fukushima catastrophe demonstrated, impacts on huge numbers of people and other forms of life.

It’s high time the NRC be abolished along with the toxic technology it promotes: nuclear power. And we fully embrace and implement safe, clean renewable energy technologies here today, led by solar and wind energy, rendering deadly dangerous nuclear power totally unnecessary.

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ABOUT KARL GROSSMAN

 

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power and host of TV programs including “The Push to Revive Nuclear Power” and “Chernobyl: A Million Casualties” (www.envirovideo.com).

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