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Is there a future for nuclear power?

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-day series on nuclear energy by GateHouse Media, owners of the Mail Tribune and Daily Tidings. The series is part of its Pinnacle reporting program and originated with the Cape Cod Times.

Federal clean-energy standards are expected to take a heavy hit under President-elect Donald Trump, but proponents say nuclear power, as a non-carbon-producing and dependable energy source, will always remain a significant part of the nation’s power portfolio.

They see the U.S. fleet of the future as a blend of the current aging reactors and newer designs coming online down the road in the next decade or two.

Keeping those older models churning out power will require license extensions in the next decade or two allowing them to operate until they are 80 years old.

Industry proponents argue well-maintained plants can easily continue to run safely for that long and will help bridge the gap until newer models, such as Small Modular Reactors, are designed and built.

Critics say existing reactors will only become more dangerous as nozzles and pumps break, cables rupture, metal supports corrode and concrete containment buildings crack. The future, they say, lies in better energy efficiency and increases in solar and wind power.

Among those opposed to keeping old reactors online is U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who calls the plan “ridiculous” and “dangerous.”

“As the nuclear plants age, they’re going to have more and more problems,” Markey said. “Going forward, the nuclear industry is no longer ‘too cheap to meter,’ as it was promised to be. The truth is, nuclear energy is meeting its maker in the marketplace, becoming less competitive against renewable energy resources.”

EXPANDING THE SUPPLY

Decisions on those further license extensions are not that far in the future. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission already has been notified by the owners of the Surry and Peach Bottom nuclear plants, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, that applications for extended licenses are in the works.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan of 2015, which requires states to keep their carbon-free energy sources strong and diverse to address climate change, has been one driver in keeping nuclear power an essential part of the nation’s portfolio.

Currently nuclear power accounts for 19 percent of the power produced nationwide and nearly two-thirds of the carbon-free energy being produced.

Although Trump said during his campaign that he would scrap the Clean Power Plan, political experts say a full rollback would likely take years because of potential litigation and the question of congressional support.

The nuclear industry also provides thousands of jobs, a Trump priority.

“Mr. Trump spoke out on the need to build more nuclear plants and expand the nation’s overall energy supply,” said Maria Korsnick, the Nuclear Energy Institute's incoming president and chief executive officer, in a statement the day after the election. "We encourage President-elect Trump to continue advancing his support for nuclear energy to maintain our nation's leadership in nuclear technology and its indispensable role in our critical energy infrastructure and environmental interests."

David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in theory it might be acceptable to extend the licenses of the old plants, if they are well-maintained, upgraded to current standards and closely monitored for any deterioration.

“What we see as missing is that there were regulations enacted post-Chernobyl but some plants were grandfathered,” he said. When licenses were extended from 40 to 60 years, the NRC never went back and revisited the grandfathering.

“That homework is not being done to ensure the public is being protected,” Lochbaum said.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency will closely scrutinize plants where owners are looking to add another 20 years beyond the 60-year mark.

“As part of the relicensing to 40 years, they had to develop aging management plans,” Sheehan said. “For another relicensing, they would add another layer to that.”

STUDYING OLDER PLANTS

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not plan to make it significantly tougher for plant license-holders to get extensions for up to 80 years, based on its rejection of a 2014 proposal from its staff to beef up requirements, the agency and the Department of Energy have initiated a scientific study on challenges older plants face.

A team of scientists has scavenged parts from shutdown reactors and is projecting how the mechanisms will fare over a longer time period. The scientists are looking at the impacts of high temperatures and radiation on cables and concrete-based structures such as containment buildings, spent-fuel pools used to cool radioactive fuel assemblies and cooling towers, as well as impacts of wear and tear on buried pipes and tanks.

The team is also discussing control room upgrades at the nation’s nuclear plants, which still use old analog technology rather than digital.

Sheehan said it will be up to the industry to devise methods to address issues related to aging, if plant owners want to keep the reactors online.

The Nuclear Energy Institute says plants, if well-maintained, can continue to safely produce power.

“Aging infrastructure can require a different maintenance regime than new infrastructure, but a systematic, safety-conscious approach is already in place,” wrote institute spokesman Thomas Kauffman.

“Age alone is not the question,” Kauffman wrote. “The Bourne Bridge is more than 80 years old. The dome of the Massachusetts Statehouse is over 200 years old. The issue is understanding the condition of the material in question.”

Mary Lampert, longtime watchdog and founder of the Pilgrim Watch citizens group, argues the industry does not maintain its plants. “To my mind, that’s fantasy,” she said. “They don’t do repairs that are needed and instead wait until it breaks, which is dangerous.”

Paul Gunter, director of the reactor oversight project for the national group Beyond Nuclear, agrees that extending licenses for older plants is a poor and dangerous way to address the need for carbon reduction.

“Seabrook has lost more than 25 percent of its structural concrete,” Gunter said about the aging New Hampshire reactor. “Such degradation is ongoing at all the power plants. Safety margins are narrowing as the plant ages and degrades.”

Seabrook’s original 40-year license expires in 2030, but owner NextEra Energy Resources has already applied to extend it 20 years beyond that date.

‘SAFETY IS BETTER’

The nation’s latest reactor, Watts Bar 2 in Tennessee, was set to start commercial power production in late August when an electrical fault caused a fire in the plant’s transformer, prompting an emergency shutdown. After testing, the reactor officially began to produce power commercially Oct. 19 but was shut down three days later when a potential failure in a transformer was detected.

“As a precaution, we took the reactor offline,” said Jim Hopson, spokesman for plant owner Tennessee Valley Authority.

The plant is now operating at full power and producing electricity for the grid.

Construction of Watts Bar 2 began in the 1970s, and it is essentially the same design as existing reactors. The final cost of construction was $4.7 billion.

Four other reactors are under construction at sites in Georgia and South Carolina.

Lochbaum called them “the next evolutionary step.”

“Safety is better and they’re more economical,” he said. “They’re like the next version of a Ford or Toyota: It’s the latest design of an existing model.”

These new reactors will not come cheap. Virgil C. Summer Units 2 and 3, 1,100-megawatt reactors under construction in South Carolina, are expected to cost about $13.8 billion. Projected startup is 2019 for Unit 2 and 2020 for Unit 3.

And Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia will go online in 2019 and 2020, respectively, at an estimated cost of $16 billion.

Electricity is regulated in Georgia and South Carolina, with consumers picking up some of the cost for plant construction through rate increases.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist, has lobbied to level the playing field for reactor owners by recognizing nuclear power as a steady, carbon-free energy source and providing subsidies or clean energy credits like those awarded to wind and solar projects.

What Trump’s new energy secretary will ultimately decide is still an unknown.

MODULAR REACTORS ON THE HORIZON

A recent study by the Department of Energy concluded subsidies and credits are good short-term solutions to slow the recent rash of nuclear plant retirements prompted by financial constraints.

Gunter says the industry should not get a bailout.

“Right now, nuclear power is already antiquated and operating facilities is no longer economically viable,” he said. “They would require the public to further subsidize an industry that’s already enjoyed six decades of taxpayer subsidy.”

The focus has turned to Small Modular Reactors that generally produce from 50 megawatts up to 300. They are factory-fabricated and shipped by rail or truck to the site. These models are less expensive and quicker to construct.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded just under $300 million to research and development efforts for the so-called SMRs. And the department is expected to pitch in another $90 million in the coming year.

“There has been bipartisan support for SMRs and we don’t expect that to change,” said John Keeley, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

A company called NuScale is expected to submit a license application to the NRC for a modular reactor sometime next year. The reactor could be churning out power by the mid-2020s, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Other types of Small Modular Reactors are still being designed. Although these produce modest amounts of electricity, they can be clustered on a site to create more.

A new generation of reactors — referred to as Generation IV — is also in various stages of development. Concepts include models cooled by liquid metal, helium and sodium. They are expected to be safer and more efficient than the current generation of reactors.

“They will require prototyping and refinement,” Kauffman said. “Like wind and solar, they will have to go through an evolution to reach commercial success.”

That does not solve the problem of nuclear waste connected to the industry or the catastrophic result of a radiological release, which critics say makes the energy source not worth the gamble.

Energy efficiency, coupled with use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, provide the ultimate solution to carbon emissions, Lampert said, since any solution to the nuclear waste problem is “way down the pike.”

— Follow Cape Cod reporter Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT.

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The Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant in Spring City, Tennessee, was going to start commercial power production in August but a fire in the plant's transformer forced an emergency shutdown. The power plant is now operating at full power and producing electricy for the grid. AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dan Henry, File
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan says plant owners will be required to develop aging management plans if they want to extend operating licenses beyond 60 years. Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times file