There are 104 commercial nuclear power plants licensed to operate in the United States. Many of these plants have been operating safely for over 40 years. Nuclear plants are initially licensed to operate for 40 years as long as they are safe. But operating experience has shown that theconservatisms incorporated into their designs combined with the various upgrades that have been implemented over the decades has lent operating reactors a particular ruggedness, which has prompted many plants to apply for 20 year license extensions.
The popularity of license renewal applications has prompted anti-nuclear politicians and activists to assert that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission simply “rubber stamps” these approvals. I recently read a letter from a member of the public that claimed existing nuclear plants are “being granted approval to continue operation with little or no upgrade to their infrastructure.” These assertions are simply false.
On the contrary, nuclear plant operators seeking license extensions are required to comply with the conditions and technical specification of the original license (unless they seek to amend their technical specifications as well); and to demonstrate they have designed a robust aging management program for the facility, which includes replacing aging equipment and implementing enhanced inservice inspection and maintenance programs for plant equipment important to safety.
For instance, before applying for a 20-year license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January, Tennessee Valley Authority replaced all four steam generators in both Unit 1 and Unit 2 at Sequoyah Nuclear Generating Station. These replacement steam generators feature technologically superior steam generator tubing alloy material with improved corrosion and wear resistance properties. TVA performed this replacement (to the tune of $360 million) in order to ensure the continued safety of the workforce and public.
Other operating plants are performing similar plant upgrades to assure the facility can operate safely for the duration of the operating license extension. The NRC does not simply “rubber stamp” these extensions as some people suggest. The regulators require enhanced inspection and maintenance programs based on the facility’s operating history; and have no qualms about requiring more than what a licensee suggests.
Even after the NRC and the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards has determined that renewing a license will not endanger the environment or public, the extension is not guaranteed. Some license renewal applicants must survive a public evidentiary hearing, during which intervenors – read: anti-nuclear organizations – can attempt to prove extending the plant operating license poses a danger to the public.
You can learn more about nuclear plant licensing and find a list of the current applications for license extension at the NRC website: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/licensing/renewal/applications.html