The US NRC has been approving operating license extensions for US nuclear reactors for up to 80 years. There were considerations of extending that to 100 years.
So far a total of 6 US reactors have been given permission to operate for 80 years. The Seattle Times discovered that the NRC may have buried recommendations for further research from the US Department of Energy. Researchers at PNNL stated the need for more research including harvesting parts from retired nuclear plants for inspection. PNNL cited the need to fill knowledge gaps, the NRC worried about public perceptions and the 80-year licensing program.
Paul Gunter at Beyond Nuclear discovered a report on this issue had been abruptly removed from multiple government and IAEA sources after he brought up the issue at an NRC meeting on license extensions. Two years later a scrubbed version of the original report was posted online.
Reactor aging issues are a serious concern. Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 showed how dangerous aging issues can be in an accident scenario. Unit 1 had operated for 41 years when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the plant site. Workers tried to cool down the reactor without risking that the aging and potentially brittle reactor vessel would crack or shatter in the process. As part of the toggling of the isolation condenser cooling system to avoid a rapid temperature change in the reactor vessel, workers lost the cooling system. Later investigations showed one train of the system failed and the status of the other train was unknown but assumed it ceased working when auxiliary power sources ran out. Unit 1 fully melted down within hours of the tsunami reaching the plant site. The risks such as reactor vessel embrittlement are quite real and an issue at 40 years of operation. Why the NRC wouldn’t want assurances that these 80-year license extensions are a good idea raises lots of questions.
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