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Extending the Life of a Nuclear Plant

Dominion Virginia Power

The federal government has, historically, licensed nuclear power plants for a period of 40 years – long enough for investors to make money, and utilities have designed reactors that could last at least that long.  Since then, most of the nation’s 99 nuclear sites have won approval for another twenty years, and now Dominion says it will be the first in the nation to request an additional 20 at its plant near Norfolk.  Sandy Hausman reports on what risks an 80-year-old reactor might pose, and why some experts are comfortable with the idea.

The Surry Nuclear Plant sits across the river from Jamestown and Williamsburg – providing nearly 20% of the state’s power, and at the Union of Concerned Scientists, nuclear expert David Lochbaum says the company has a stellar safety record.

“A few years ago we looked at ten nuclear plants across the country, which included Surry," he explains. "Surry was head and shoulders above the other nine.  At first we checked our math to make sure that was right. We had selected Surry because it was the lowest cost electricity producer of any nuclear power reactor in the United States, and we were concerned they might be achieving that result by taking shortcuts on safety.  What we found was just the opposite.  Dominion was turning over rocks, looking for problems, and they complemented that with a very effective program for fixing problems right the first time.”

And at a time when the world is increasingly worried about pollution from burning of coal, gas and oil, nuclear energy is sitting pretty.  Houston Wood is a professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia.

“Many people are worried about climate change, global warming, worried about the atmosphere, and the carbon fuels cause a lot of pollutants, and nuclear power is a green power source,” Wood says.

Of course a nuclear accident could be catastrophic, but Wood argues good maintenance can minimize risk. Dominion spokesman Ken Holt says the company replaces many parts of its nuclear plants on a regular basis.

“The plants that are operating today are not the same plants that went into operation 40 years ago," Holt asserts. "We upgrade equipment.  Every 18 months we shut the units down, and during those outages, we replace equipment.  We repair equipment.  We upgrade equipment.”

Still Paul Gunter with the activist group Beyond Nuclear says Dominion can’t replace some parts of the plant, and they could fail at any time.

“It’s a real wild card to talk about how these same plants will be responding 60-80 years out.  They simply don’t know.”

Experts can’t say, for example, how well concrete structures will hold up over time, and at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Scott Burnell says steel, used to retain the reactor’s fuel and core, becomes brittle when subjected to radiation.

“If you hit steel with a lot of neutrons over a long period of time, you change the mechanical properties of the steel.  The on-going technological question is:  At what point does that steel no longer have the necessary qualities to do its job?

And, he says, it’s a challenge for utilities to figure out when to replace old electronics – to make the switch from analog to digital systems. 

In addition to weighing questions of safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will consider the environmental impact of operating a nuclear plant for another 20 years. 

“Nuclear power plants require extreme amounts of water," says environmental activist Paul Gunter.  "They have to be situated on lakes, rivers and the ocean.  This is one of the things that they’re really not addressing in any of the license extension programs is the incredible amount of water that is going into these power plants and then has an environmental impact as it is thermally discharged.”

Dominion won’t submit an official application for Surry until 2019 but wanted to give the federal government a heads up – to staff up and get ready for the work it must do before saying yes or no to another 20 years of nuclear power in Surry County, Virginia. 

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