By Michael Mariotte

The bathtub curve for aging reactors, developed by David Lochbaum of Union of Concerned Scientists. Most U.S. reactors are already in the right side of the tub, with both costs and safety risks increasing.

Last week, CNBC ran a story sure to elevate the blood pressure of clean energy activists everywhere: No more nukes? How about another 80 years of them. The article discussed the hopes of some in the nuclear industry that reactors will be able to be re- re-licensed and operate for 80 years instead of the original 40-year license period as well as beyond the 60 year license most U.S. reactors (75 of the 99 operating) already have received.

CNBC named names too: it said that Exelon, Duke Power and Dominion Resources are all considering applying for an additional 20-year extension to be able to operate for 80 years. Exelon is thinking about it for its Fukushima-clone Peach Bottom reactors in Pennsylvania, Dominion for its Surry reactors in Virginia and Duke Power for its Three Mile Island-clone three-unit Oconee plant in South Carolina.

The Nuclear Energy Institute quickly jumped on the bandwagon, posting on its website yesterday a piece titled Research Finds Few Obstacles to Long-Term Operations for Nuclear Plants. In NEI’s worldview, dedicated researchers from the Department of Energy and the nuclear industry are working hard to identify any obstacles to running reactors as long and hard as possible. Their conclusion isn’t surprising: “Much work remains to be done, but early results indicate that there are no generic technical reasons to prevent well-maintained nuclear power plants from operating beyond 60 years…”

Before anyone gets too excited however, it should be noted that the NRC does not–at least not yet–even offer license extensions beyond 60 years. Last year, as CNBC points out, the NRC staff recommended issuing a new proposed rule that would set up a pathway for allowing for such extensions, but the Commissioners nixed the idea. That doesn’t mean the Commissioners will always veto the concept, but does indicate that they don’t think either the industry or the agency is ready to move down that road.

So don’t expect any 80-year licenses soon. The lead time for issuing a final rule, especially one guaranteed to be controversial, is long. First a proposed rule has to be developed, defended and published for public comment–and there will be a lot of public comment. Then the staff has to answer the comments, formulate the final rule and present it to the Commissioners, who can either accept it as is or send it back for more work. In either case, the process can take anywhere from a year–if everyone works really fast and there is little controversy–to two years or more, and that’s all before a single application can be submitted, much less considered and accepted.

So what is really going on here? Why is the concept suddenly making news now?

It all goes back to what we’ve been emphasizing since GreenWorld began publication, and even before: to 2013 when the …read more

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