The World’s Aging Nuclear Power Fleet

A group blog by Yale students. The topic:

Many of the world’s nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their expected lifetimes, and policymakers are divided on what to do. Safely decommissioning such plants is costly, and funding for doing so is scarce. Compounding the problem, there are worries about nuclear proliferation, particularly regarding old plants in the former Soviet republics. Nuclear power is already providing a significant amount of carbon-free electricity in many countries (20 percent in the United States). Amid much controversy, Germany’s government recently reversed a decision to phase out its old nuclear plants because of concerns over increased carbon emissions. How can the world address the problem of old nuclear plants safely and with an eye to the need for carbon-free electricity generation?

No Easy Alternatives to Low-Carbon Nuclear

Brian Marrs, MEM School of Forestry & Environmental Studies ’12

What’s worse – a largely defined, manageable risk (nuclear power), or an undefined, largely unmanageable risk (climate change)? ALL energy resources come with trade-offs. This post urges that science, not emotion, guide the discussion about nuclear power.

When asked why he supported nuclear energy, renowned physicist David MacKay once responded, “I don’t believe in nuclear power, I believe in arithmetic.” Virtually GHG-free, fission produces around 20% of the United State’s electricity. The U.S. nuclear fleet has operated an average of 30 from the 40 years typical to a nuclear plant’s lifespan. As nuclear plants retire, energy planning must embrace the following: 1.) Costs/benefits of fossil generation 2.) Scalability of renewables/efficiency.

A study from Harvard Medical School found that coal-fired power causes about $500 billion in damages to human and environmental health, including harm from greenhouse gas emissions. If the entire U.S. nuclear fleet were replaced by coal or natural gas, GHG emissions would increase about 13% and 5%, respectively.

Renewables are the future, though a future unlikely to arrive tomorrow. Renewables have achieved fantastic cost-reductions, but remain relatively expensive, lack energy density, and often require massive transmission network expansion. Policy has equally failed to support business models for sustaining mass efficiency improvements. Technology and government are solving these problems, but apparently not as fast as nuclear plants retire.

So, we need new fission for the time being, especially if the transportation sector is to seriously switch from petroleum towards low-carbon, electric power. Recent events in Japan remind us that there is no silver bullet technology to decarbonize electricity. Like renewables, nuclear makes more sense in certain locations than others. Replacing nuclear generation means a global reassessment of nuclear technologies. Unfortunately, there will be future accidents locally, but perhaps less of a catastrophe, globally.

Vitrification: Keeping Nuclear Waste under Control

By Daniel Olson, Environmental Studies ’12

The question of whether or not to decommission old nuclear power plants has recently, for very tragic reasons, imposed itself into the consciousness of people around the globe. The awful earthquake and tsunami in Japan has dramatically shown the world the hazards nuclear energy plants can pose. The benefits of nuclear energy, however, remain appealing. The desire for a carbon-free energy source that does not rely on imports from unstable countries is undeniable. In order to maintain this source of energy for the long-term, however, creative solutions and technologies will be necessary to mitigate the risks mentioned above.

A promising solution to the nuclear waste problem is vitrification. Vitrification is the process of turning a substance into glass by increasing its temperature and rapidly cooling it. In Hanford, WA, a well-known decommissioned nuclear energy area, the Bechtel Corporation is building the Hanford Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant for the Department of Energy. It will use vitrification technology to blend nuclear waste with glass-forming compounds. Testing has shown that this process would make the waste stable and safe for long-term storage, preventing leaks of radiation into the environment. Though the plant is not finished, vitrification seems poised to moderate nuclear waste.

If the technology is successful in Hanford, operating nuclear power plants may be able to use vitrification to stabilize nuclear waste as it is generated. Additionally, plants experiencing nuclear crises, like the Fukushima Daiichi complex, may be able to use this technology to safely handle nuclear waste quickly, preventing large-scale radiation pollution. These applications may be years away, but in order to secure the future of nuclear energy, innovations like vitrification technology are critical.

See and

The Next 40 Years

By Andrew Goldstein, Applied Physics ’13

Ten nuclear power plants celebrated their respective 40th birthdays during the last two years, outliving their original 40-year permits and preliminary life expectancy predictions. Most of these power plants have even been granted an additional 20 years of life. And so the question must be asked: how long can these plants remain active, safe, and efficient? 60 years? 80 years? a century?

Instituting a mandatory “retirement age” for nuclear power plants is simply not a sustainable practice because no new nuclear plants have been built in the United States during the last 15 years to take their place. Indian Point Energy Center, located 24 miles north of New York City in the city of Buchanan, is just one of about 30 nuclear power plants which are currently applying for an additional 20 year permit. Indian Point exemplifies the dilemma between necessity and safety which many of these older plants’ applications exhibit: while Indian Point supplies a whopping 30% of the electricity used by New York City and Westchester County, it has had various environmental and safety concerns in recent years (the power plant’s water-intake system kills nearly a billion aquatic organisms a year and a minor explosion occurred in the main transformer for unknown reasons this past November). However, Indian Point is set to undergo extensive renovations on its 40th birthday in order to change with the times – to become safer and more environmentally friendly.

If nuclear power is to preserve its 20 percent wedge of the United States energy portfolio, it may be necessary for older plants to be kept in operation through renovations and technology upgrades. Americans have an 80-year life expectancy; what if American nuclear power plants can live for 80 years as well?

Nuc and Invest: Tax Nuclear Plants and Use that Money to Invest in Renewables

By Mariana Lanzas, Economics and Global Affairs ’13

Up until now, I thought that the main question we faced in making nuclear power one of our largest energy sources was what to do with the waste generated. In this light, I tended to be in favor of nuclear power in hopes that we might find a way to deal with this waste later, when climate change had been resolved, and, in the mean time, we could use this great, carbon-free alternative to meet our energy demands.

Nevertheless the recent explosions at Japan’s nuclear power plant have reminded me that an equally pressing threat comes from the mere existence of the plants themselves. Now I realize that we should only treat nuclear power as a temporary substitute that allows us to buy time and raise money to invest in renewable technologies, as Claudia Kemfert of DIW, a think tank in Berlin, suggests (The Economist, Germany’s Energy Debate, September 2009).

Since nuclear power plants are very expensive to build but relatively cheap to run (The Economist, Germany’s Energy Debate, September 2009), utility companies would increase their profits with the extension of the plants’ lifetimes. It would thus make sense to have them pay, in return, a certain amount of money to be invested in the development of safer energy sources. Mr. Kuplent of Credit Suisse suggests either windfall tax or an agreement that such companies finance investments in renewable energy (The Economist, Germany’s Energy Debate, September 2009).

It is my belief that extending the lives of nuclear plants is a good idea only so long as it is safe to do so, until the very promising technologies currently being developed are ready to take over.

“Uprating” Nuclear Plants to Meet High Demands and Mitigate Climate Change

By Emmy Pickett, Environmental Studies 12’

Environment concerns are helping to drive the development of new nuclear reactors and the re-commissioning of old reactors reaching the end of their original life-span. To meet the high demand for energy and mitigate the environmental impacts of carbon emissions, some environmentalists and many governments are eagerly proposing nuclear energy as a solution. A goal is to replace coal power with a combination of solar and nuclear or terrestrial energy.

With this goal in mind last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition decided to prolong the lives of all 17 nuclear plants, which ultimately produced nearly a quarter of electricity for Germany last year. However, Merkel recently placed a three-month moratorium on nuclear production in response to Japan’s ongoing efforts to avoid a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima complex in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11th (Nature News).

While technological advances have made nuclear power plants safer than ever, building entirely new plants is incredibly costly. While we could try and push power plants to their absolute limit, I think that would be a grave mistake. However, highly modernizing and “uprating” current plants would be an ideal solution to the problem of an aging nuclear fleet. Refurbishing also addresses the public opinion problem because people close to present power plants are already open to the idea of nuclear power.

Often time, the magnitude and severity of the global warming, combined with a fervent dedication to solving the problem of carbon dioxide emissions propels people towards the next best option. The devastation in Japan has reminded many people that carbon is not our only environmental and health concern and that nuclear energy has its place but only when we do not settle for second-best.

See Nature News for more information.

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